Friday, January 24, 2014

Thinking about organic wine -- conclusion

Chapter 3, conclusion and sources.


Thinking about organic wine, a little more


If my kind reader has accompanied me this far in thinking about organic wine, I'm flattered. I didn't mean for the project to turn into a dissertation, not only on the plausibility of what the little beige tags on organic wine bottles say concerning sustainability and pristine-ness, but on forest cover statistics, DDT, and malaria. I'm flattered by his attention, and I thank him. Shall we finish?

An article in the March 2010 Wine Spectator brings us more or less up to speed re: the business of organic wine. It describes some California wineries which are "going green," installing things like "radiant flooring," insulation made from old shredded blue jeans, and the "high efficiency" light bulbs that, I presume, might be the same ones loaded with mercury and thus the ones we can't throw away, but must eventually put into landfills where they'll quietly leak poison into the future. We will all have to buy them, beginning in 2012 you know, barring revolt. Anyway the thrust of the article is precisely efficiency, efficiency, efficiency, how this is so much better than old-fashioned bad farming. Perhaps. Given the environmentalist movement's record of truth telling, we may never be privileged to know how well blue jean insulation worked. And I think I won't even approach the question of who "certifies organic," and under what rules, those vineyards that want to be certified organic. The preacher certifying the choir would, I daresay, sum it up.

More curiously, the article does not mention anything about actual fieldwork, anything as mundane as pesticides or sulphur, or the carrot -- we chose the carrot, you remember, to represent any vegetal matter whose properties can't, in the end, be changed by organic farming -- remaining at the end of the day a carrot. I doubt the nice reporter was even allowed near the vineyards. (By the way, the wine gods have bestowed on organic wine- farming one terrific stroke of luck, and I probably should have put this in large capitals at the head of one of these three chapters: the low yields which risky, pre-modern farming produces also happen to show vitis vinifera at its best.) No, the Spectator article is all about fly-ash concrete walls and gorgeous views.

Disingenuous -- make believe? -- would be the word for this magazine's cursory look at a handful of billionaire wineries' embrace of "green"-ness. Big name, flashy concerns like Cade and Hall not only have Getty money behind them, they also at least have a chance of recouping their refitting investment with sales of $50 PlumpJack. More: no fools, they may fully intend to think ahead, and get on the right side of any new "green" laws allowing them to sell "carbon offsets" to energy-sucking Gallo or Franzia. It would be smart business to sell wine plus modern-day dispensations, and turn carbon-tax collectors for the environmentalist state. If such a wealth transfer dovetails in many ways with their own, shall we say, emotional satisfactions, so much the better. Cade's winemaker Tony Biagi talked happily to the Spectator about the future collapse of freedom, and the impositions of other people's purification disciplines, for the health of the planet: " 'In the next five to ten years, there's not going to be a choice: you're going to have to build certain aspects of this [i.e., eco-friendly or 'responsible' construction guidelines] into any building. So it feels good that we made the choice to do this.' " I wonder if all Californians agree, or remember electing winemaker Tony to some sort of high office.

PlumpJack represents the top of the green wine pyramid. For the poor exploding Brand X with which we began our story -- an organic, unsulfited wine, literally bursting with unkilled yeasts -- as for the rest of the industry, it's like this. Wine, especially inexpensive wine, is so uniformly cheap and agreeable today because of industrial practices. Machine harvesting, efficient chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and energy-sucking refrigerated stainless steel tanks all give us the reliable value we want. Humbler companies that give up or at least compromise modern methods in the search for emotional purity, omitting sulfites from boxed white blends for instance, risk paying the price which our ancestors knew as well as they knew wormy cherries and malaria. They risk fobbing off on their customers the resultant small harvests, iffy quality, spotty availability, and higher prices. What these companies then need, in order to recoup the investment they've made in sprawling farms and ruined inventory, is a customer base permanently loyal to the emotional satisfactions of organic wine.

Can they get one? We'll see. Should customers rethink that loyalty and stop buying unreliable product, Brand X is going to have to either nobly go under, or swallow hard and re-retrofit to meet the needs of the approaching 20th century. Unless of course, a dozen powerful winemaker Tonys simply decree, through whatever channels they can use, that we shan't rethink loyalty; we shall buy correctly, and nobly accept the consequences. Ridiculous, unimaginable of course. It would be as if the green movement could outlaw light bulbs.

And all for a carrot that remains a carrot. Organic, shmorganic? I'm not peeking into your shopping cart. By all means buy what makes you happy at the price you like, just as I buy what makes me happy at a price I like. But, yes.


Artwork by Clara Yos


These are the sources for all three articles, plus some additional reading (marked by *).

Environmentalist:

Not so much: 

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