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The Truth About Organic Wine Exposed: Organic Wine is Great – Part 3/3

Previously, in Part 2 of The Truth About Organic Wine Exposed: Organic Wine is Great, I addressed the limitations of sulfur, the fact that some synthetic chemicals may be more effective means of dealing with vineyard problems, and the “harmlessness” of glyphosate and other conventionally used chemicals. If you haven’t read it, catch up here.

The last two arguments against organic viticulture are a pretty tough 1-2 punch. Does it survive the round? Let’s find out.

Argument Against Organic Viticulture #5

5. Organic viticulture doesn’t make the grapes/wine any more nutritious/healthy for you.

To be fair, this argument is made more about other kinds of agriculture. That is, a head of lettuce fertilized with ammonium nitrate (a common conventional ag fertilizer that supplies nitrogen) is going to have the same amount of vitamins and minerals as one fertilized with organic compost. The plant converts any nitrogen into its own plant-y-ness, regardless of the source. 

This has been shown to be true repeatedly, and the same is true of grapes… Not that anyone is drinking wine for its vitamin and mineral content.

But this is a misleading argument for two big reasons:

First, soil health IS affected by using synthetic fertilizers versus organic fertilizers and composts. Initially the microbes in soil love the high dose of N-P-K (or whatever elements) from the synthetic fertilizer. They, along with the plant, will take a free meal any way they can get it. But the synthetic fertilizer does nothing to enrich the soil’s overall health and vitality. The soil doesn’t become a thriving micro-organism community, able to feed itself a healthy, regular diet. It’s more like a depression era bread line. 

Conventional viticulture gives the soil a fish, while organic viticulture teaches the soil how to fish. 

Does the science back this up? To be honest, it’s debatable. Any commercial agriculture, including viticulture, requires the growth of many more of a single species of plant than would ever occur in nature growing all together in the same plot of soil. So the soil must be replenished manually. Even an organic vineyard needs to be fertilized  And, given the cheaper cost of synthetic versus organic fertilizer, or ease of application and therefore lower labor costs, a farmer or viticulturist will be motivated to spend less for the same, or arguably the same, results. 

I empathize, and, in the realm of conventional viticulture, using synthetic fertilizers is probably the least troubling thing you can do. If that’s the only thing that pushes you into the conventional category, that’s not too shabby. I wouldn’t do it in my own vineyard, but I’d taste your wine. 

Second, and more importantly, conventional viticulture DOES result in some pretty unhealthy things ending up in the finished wine – like glyphosate. You may have heard about the recent test of different wines from California that found glyphosate in all of them (if you haven’t, just do a search). 

Glyphosate and other herbicides aren’t even sprayed on the vines. They’re sprayed to kill weeds around the vines. But they persist in the soil for a very long time, and the vines take it in through their roots and send it to their grapes (there is a strong suggestion that glyphosate in particular lowers the quality of those grapes too). Glyphosate persists in soil for such a long time that even organic wines made from vineyards that were converted from conventional to organic in the last 20 years (perhaps longer) can still contain small amounts of it. 

That’s not all. Grapes are not, generally, washed before being made into wine. So some amount of any synthetic pesticides that were sprayed ON the grapes during the growing season will end up in the finished wine, even if the vines haven’t taken them up through their roots (which they also surely have). So with conventional viticulture literal poisons end up on both the outside and the inside of the grapes that go into your wine. 

(For a sampling of just a few of those poisons that get sprayed on wine grapes, see #1 above, and follow the links.)

Organic viticulture also uses sprays, and as I mentioned, some aren’t so great in terms of human and environmental health, especially if used injudiciously. But again, the number of allowed poisons is much lower in organic viticulture.

I’d rather drink wine made from a strange new hybrid grape that was able to be grown without synthetic chemicals, than drink a Pinot Noir grown with them. 

The next argument is the last in this series, and I’ll be honest – it’s a pretty strong. It may be the case that organic viticulture only works in certain climates. But does that mean we shouldn’t practice organic viticulture where it IS possible?

Argument Against Organic Viticulture #6

6. Organic viticulture doesn’t work East of the Mississippi.

This is a very strong argument, though not because it’s entirely true. 

What is true is that organically growing vinifera and hybrid vines in climates zones other than Mediterranean is extremely labor intensive and, therefore, cost prohibitive. One organic wine grower from Virginia estimates that 30 minutes are spent on each vine every year. That’s a lot of labor when you consider an average vineyard has 600-900 vines per acre. 

What is true is that the East Coast organic viticulturist must do everything right from the beginning. You must plant healthy, disease resistant varieties of vines, tend them meticulously and diligently, and still sometimes be prepared to lose a large part of your crop. In 2018 Virginia vineyards received over 100 inches of rain, during the growing season. That’s insane. Santa Barbara wine country received just under 25 inches of rain in the entirety of 2018, and that was more than the previous 12 years. No matter how meticulously you farm your organic vineyard, Nature always has the last laugh. 

What is true is that prevention is sometimes the only tool the organic viticulturist has to avoid some of the worst things that can happen to a vineyard. Once you get certain diseases in the vineyard, there may be no organic treatments to get rid of them. An East Coast organic wine grower I spoke with decided to lose their organic certification because their vineyard became infected with black rot and they faced a choice of losing the entire vineyard and having to start from scratch, or spraying a conventional synthetic chemical like Pristine or Revus Top (both very hazardous) because there are no organic treatments for black rot other than prevention. 

What’s also true is that those who are attempting to organically grow Cabernet, Pinot, Chardonnay and other European varieties on the East Coast of the USA, are also almost certainly spraying copper sulfate. It’s really the only effective organic treatment for the downey mildew that it rampant there, and it’s minimally effective at that. 

So it’s not technically true that it’s impossible to grow wine grapes organically on the East Coast (or other similar climates), but it is largely so difficult and risky that you’d almost have to be an inveterate gambler with a penchant for Russian Roulette, not to mention a multi-millionaire, to want to engage in it. 

We should be in awe that some wineries do grow organically on the East Coast, and we should support them in every way that we can. The fact that they are doing it and succeeding, despite everything, only strengthens the argument for organic viticulture on the West Coast. 

Organic wine growers on the West Coast face most of the same viticultural pressures as those in the East, just to a far lesser extent. California, in particular, is pretty much the exact climate in which vinifera vines evolved. The existence of even one organic wine grower in Virginia means that a far greater number of vineyards could and should be organic in California (to date the number is something like 3%)… like, um, all of them. 

Having said all that, the future of organic viticulture on the East Coast may depend on a shift in consumer tastes. The lay wine drinker will need to become bored with drinking only Cabernet, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir, and be willing to fall in love with native varieties of grapes, or one of the new disease-resistant hybrid grapes that are being developed at Cornell and the University of Minnesota. 

Personally, I’d prefer to use my science to find an organic treatment for black rot, or the next North American version of Cabernet Sauvignon, bred to withstand every known vine blight, rather than using science to synthesize a new poison to kill those blights. I’d rather drink wine made with a strange new hybrid grape that was able to be grown without synthetic chemicals, than drink a Pinot Noir grown with them. 

On the West Coast the future of organic viticulture and viticulture in general may depend on dry farming – only growing grapes where they can survive without irrigation. But that’s a subject for another article.

The values of organic viticulture transcend any temporary issues with its application.

Conclusion

My ideal vineyard is dry farmed and never has to be irrigated, and it’s made of vines that are self-resistant to all forms of pestilence so that it never has to be sprayed with anything. It is situated on soil that has just the right nutrients and drainage to provide what wine grapes need to be healthy and high quality. My role as the shepherd of that vineyard would be mainly to train the vines and manage the canopy for the best possible way to ripen the grapes, to manually control competitive vegetation (aka weeds), and to enrich the soil with organic composts that replenish what I would take away from the vineyard in the form of grapes. 

While this is possible, we mostly don’t live in an ideal world. We still haven’t hybridized a delicious and completely no-spray grape variety. Arandell was thought to be one such hybrid, but remember the winery who had given up their certification due to a black rot infestation? They were growing Arandell. Arandell is really great, and mostly resistant to most blights… but every once in a while when it rains 100 inches you might need to spray it, and every other variety, with poison. 

Compromises to our values are sometimes necessary in the real world where most of us don’t have a limitless supply of time and money, and we actually need to make a financial return on our crop of wine grapes this year to survive. And sometimes synthetic chemicals may be needed to save our vines. 

On the other hand, the fact that there are currently no organic treatments for certain blights, like black rot, doesn’t mean there never will be any. Personally, I see these kinds of lacks in the organic arsenal as challenges for bright, caring, scientific minds to overcome, not as a reason to abandon and disregard organic viticulture. Because the values of organic viticulture transcend any temporary issues with its application.

The dichotomy I presented at the beginning of this article was not really about conventional versus organic viticulture, it was about values. Both organic and conventional viticulturists can share the same values, as it turns out. The question is whether you are guided by a desire to have as light a touch on the world as you can, and to leave it a little better than you found it, while still finding a way to make a living, or whether you are guided by the desire to make as much money as you can. 

Organic viticulture really protects us from some of the darker sides of human nature. It puts a limit on the damage that we can do when we are guided by our venal, egotistic, short-sighted, and ignorant impulses. We know that we all have these impulses from time to time. Organic certification makes us accountable for them and helps ensure that we’ve taken steps to prevent them from getting into our wine. 

I think that’s great.

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