Natural Selection


Almost anything sounds more scandalous than a two-hour wine documentary, but former Balthazar sommelier Jonathan Nossiter has managed to incite passions with his feature, titled Mondovino. The film argues persistently that globalization has ruined wine and that big businesses disregard the subtleties of different terrains (or what the French call the “terroir”) and traditional processes in exchange for a product that appeals broadly, can be drunk right away, and could have been made anywhere. (Globalization is homogenization—a Pinot Noir is a Pinot Noir, whether it’s from Oregon or Burgundy.)

Like any world business, there are big names in wine that monopolize the market, exploiting tradition for quantity and “branding.” Mondovino shows such moguls at huge, modern vineyards, talking about marketing as menacing music creeps in, and then contrasts them with the little guys—adorable, dejected old men in the countryside, discussing the meaning of life. It’s not subtle, but it gets the point across to non—winos and connoisseurs alike: think Starbucks, Walmart, Microsoft. As Laurent Saillard, owner of Fort Greene’s Ici put it: “Modern wines aren’t made to age. They’re big and impressive immediately, but there’s nothing behind it. It’s like a Hummer.”

Many of us derive pleasure from waiting in line at the Mud Truck, sneering at the nearest Starbucks. The wine world is no different. New York restaurateurs and wine merchants are falling in love with organic, biodynamic, and sustainable wines. It is a logical step—if you eat organic fruit, why should you drink wine made from grapes that have been sprayed with chemical pesticides and preserved with sulfites? Organic winos argue that it’s bad for the drinker, the land, and the people who work that land.

The trend is growing quickly here, while in Europe it’s a tradition that’s threatened by pressure to modernize. Donna Binder, who owns the vegetarian restaurant Counter, said during an organic wine tasting she hosted, “Three years ago, I would call distributors and ask about organic wine, and they’d go ‘what? Organic?’ but now it’s a common question.” Binder has since found enough organic wines she loves that her small list quickly became large enough to house a wine bar with over one hundred organic, biodynamic, or sustainable selections.

These labels can be confusing and intimidating, especially to novices. Wine must be made from 95 percent organically grown grapes (without chemicals, artificial fertilizers, pesticides, or growth hormones) in order to be USDA certified organic. For a “100 percent Organic” seal, of course, it must be made from 100 percent organic grapes. In either case, the wine must contain no added sulfites and cannot exceed a specified percentage of naturally occurring sulfites. Sulfur Dioxide is routinely added to wine as a preservative. The health threats are still up for debate, as is the question of whether wine can be made without naturally occurring sulfites. As of now, wine can be labeled “Sulfite Free” if the level is too low to be detected by current analysis.

Towering Above: Counter flaunts its goods
photo: Nina Lalli

To further complicate things, winemakers must pay a fee to get certified, and labels are not globally consistent. Many wines are known to be organic, but aren’t indicated as such because the vintners don’t want to spend the money, or don’t think the process was noteworthy. Saillard said recently, “It’s sad that people even have to point out that their wine is organic now.” After all, as Binder pointed out, wine has been made throughout and probably before recorded history, but sulfites were only added when it started traveling, in the 1900s.

Organic wine lovers rave about wine that is “hand-made.” Biodynamic is to wine as “artisanal” is to cheese and bread; both are a return to tradition. The term “biodynamic” predates organic agriculture and invokes a more mystical ideal based on the teachings of Rudolph Steiner. “Biodynamic” tends to indicate a step beyond organic, with almost no intervention and special attention to the soil and vines at every phase of growth. Sustainable agriculture is a notion commonly described by elementary schoolteachers—in a perfect world, the earth gets what it needs to grow plants from the sun, rain, and animal life—a cycle that could go on forever.

“It’s common sense,” states Saillard. “If you give a kid a crappy burger from McDonald’s, and then give him a really good burger, made with the best meat, he will be able to taste the difference—it’s not that hard. I really believe that the same is true about wine, it’s just a matter of giving people a glass and letting them taste it.” Ici’s wine list is all organic—certified or not, and stays almost completely below $40, thanks to a smaller markup than most restaurants make. “I have to make enough money to stay alive, but it’s also a political decision—it shouldn’t be something for the elite. Everyone should be able to afford to eat and drink the right things, not to poison their bodies.”