What It Means To Be Green: Defining Sustainable, Organic and Biodynamic
It is hard to believe that at one time in the not so distant past, ‘organic’ wines were a marginalized lot, considered to be of sub-par quality and to be generally avoided. Such was the negative connotation that as recently as a few years ago, wineries of quality that had converted to organic farming practices still hesitated to label their wines as such. Today, of course, ‘sustainable’, ‘organic’ and ‘biodynamic’ have passed into a winery could nothing more. It is important to understand that these terms are NOT interchangeable and do not represent hierarchal points on a continuum of some sort. Each represents a distinct approach and methodology of farming.
“Sustainable” is the most general and broadly defined of the three and generally considered to be the ‘least strict’. There is, in fact, no universally accepted definition of the term and ‘Sustainable Certification’ is bestowed by numerous unconnected and overlapping organizations. By literal definition, ‘sustainability’ is ‘the capacity to endure’. Odd that ‘endure’ means ‘bear hardship’. Wineries claiming to be ‘sustainable’, then, engage in a practice or practices that they feel increase the ability of the environment in which they operate to bear the hardship of that operation.
“Organic” in contrast is the most rigorous and most clinically defined of the three. To some that follow its standards, “Organic” is the culture of “No”. Intended to preserve the existing biological, chemical and mineral components of the land, to be “Organic” is to adhere to a Government mandated list of prohibited materials. Many different state and federal organizations confer certification, but the basic standards are the same for all. (A basic list of those can be found here: http://agr.wa.gov/Foodanimal/organic/Certificate/2006/OrganicRequirementsSimplified.pdf). Because ‘organic’ is the trendiest and most recognizable of the three terms, many claims are sometimes made that are not supported by facts. As a consumer, there is only one thing to remember: If it’s not labeled “Organic”, then it is not organic.
“Biodynamic” farming comes the closest to of the three to being a philosophy. It is based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner and treats the entire farm, or vineyard, as a unified organism operating in sync with the cycles of the sun and moon and in which animals play a key role. Similar to organics, biodynamics eschews synthetic pesticides and fertilizers but goes several steps further to involve composting and fermenting materials from the farm to be made into preparations which are then applied to the plants and soil. One of these preparations involves the burying of cow manure in a horn that has become the popular clichéd image of Biodynamism. There is a certain spiritual element to the practice, which you can read more about here: http://www.biodynamics.com/biodynamics.html and here: http://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/biodynamic.html#intro. Certification is available through several organizations; Demeter is by far the largest and most respected worldwide.
So this is all very well and good and good for Mother Earth, but the important question is this: Does any of it make the wines taste better? That, my friends, you must answer for yourselves.