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Last week I attended a panel about biodynamic and organic agriculture and its influence on the wine industry. Roger Cohen’s recent op-ed in the New York Times was a hot topic — the one in which he enthusiastically (and myopically) applauded a study by Stanford University that concluded organic food isn’t more nutritious than commercial food. He distilled his opinion down to “Organic, schmorganic.”
Ugh. Cohen may have directed his rant at Le Pain Quotidien, but the wine industry faces its share of misunderstandings too. More and more wines are labeled “organic” or “biodynamic” than ever — do you know what the labels mean?
Organic farming seeks to coexist with the natural system, rather than dominate it. Synthetic pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers are prohibited; as is human sewage sludge fertilizer (eww!), GMO’s (Genetically Modified Organisms), irradiation and biosolids. Farmland must also be free of prohibited chemicals, usually for three years or more. Certification comes from the National Organic Program run by the USDA (more on that later). One controversial caveat of organic grapevine farming is the allowance of Bordeaux mixture, which contains copper, for use as a fungicide. It is permitted in restricted quantities.
Biodynamics is organic farming in conjunction with the principles of Rudolf Steiner; you may know it as farming with cow dung and the cosmos since the use of compost and manure is vital, and farmers follow an astronomical sowing and planting calendar. Biodynamic proponents view the entire farm as a whole, and seek to heal and restore life and vitality by encouraging the interrelationship between soil, plants and animals. For example, biodynamic farms often keep their own bee hives to support the farm’s cycle of plant life. Certification in the U.S is given by Demeter-USA. Biodynamic guidelines also allow the use of Bordeaux mixture, but in even more restricted quantities than Organic farming.
But it’s complicated.
Politics have compromised principles
Organic certification is run by the USDA, which is nothing if not political. Michael Taylor, a former Vice President at Monsanto, the scary company scathingly depicted in “Food, Inc.”, was controversially appointed Deputy Commissioner for Foods at the USDA. Sounds like an unholy alliance.
Other criticisms proffered are that the USDA has caved in to big agribusiness looking to get a piece of the organic money pie, forcing a relaxation of standards, and undercutting the hard work done by true organic farmers.
Yet even for these complaints, the requirements are relatively strict, and it takes years for wineries to be eligible for certification. A lot of something is better than nothing, even if it is not perfect; kind of like Congress.
Use of copper in Bordeaux mixture
Conventional grape growers frequently point out that organic/biodynamic farming is fraught with hypocrisy. Organic farming allows the use of copper as a fungicide since synthetic treatments are disallowed under the rules, and there is no non-synthetic alternative on the market. Because mildew is a near inevitable infection found on grapevines in damp regions (Long Island, for example), it has to be treated or else, no wine.
Not to get too technical, but basically copper is harmful to fish, livestock and earthworms, and pollutes sub-soils and water tables in a lasting way. Its rampant use in the early 1880s, when its effectiveness was first discovered in the vineyards of Bordeaux, led to lasting damage.
However, the amount of copper currently allowed is extremely limited. In France, for example, Bordeaux mixture use in organic vineyards is strictly regulated to 6 Kg/Ha/year, as opposed to a 38 Kg/Ha/year limit for conventional farms — the same guys complaining! So, yes, organic and biodynamic farms can use it if necessary, but their allowance is about 1/6th of their non-organic neighbors.
Are these reasons not to care about, encourage or buy organic/biodynamic wines? Personally, I would say promoting the healthy farming of the earth, despite existing flaws, is a net positive.
To get a taste of biodynamic wines, check out the selection at Appellation Wines NYC (156 10th Avenue; 212-741-9474). They carry Chateau Maris wines from the Minervois, the first 100% biodegradable winery.