Friday, January 24, 2014

Thinking about organic wine (in chapters)

I think we can agree the wine industry is very lefty-pinko, so I originally published this post, questioning the point of organic wine, with some trepidation. Only one Anonymous ever commented, scoffing that I knew nothing and should do proper research before tainting people's minds with dangerous nonsense.

Perhaps the Anonymous didn't read all three chapters.

Note, September 7, 2012: see Roger Cohen's article "The Organic Fable," New York Times online, September 6, 2012.  He cites a new study by Stanford University concluding -- after "an examination of four decades of research" -- that organic foods are no better than, and equally as contaminated with bacteria as, conventionally raised foods.

I was on the phone with a wholesale wine salesman. "Do you have any more of Brand X on the shelves?" he asked. "Because we're having a problem with it exploding."

This salesman is an ex-actor with a fine "chesty" voice and a fondness for the quick pun, so I was about to try to give him one of my best and reply, "You mean, exploding sales, or just exploding?" Har har. But I didn't get the chance. He went on to say that a few of the boxes -- we are talking about a boxed wine, I should explain, 3 liters per -- had actually made a mess in the trunk of his car and that the same thing was happening elsewhere. At the warehouse, I presume. He did not dwell on details and anyway is working strictly on commission, so tends to be in a hurry to get on to his next, paying gig.

I told him we had none left on the shelves and he was relieved. No one wants customers bringing home wine and having it explode on them. Three liters equals four bottles. That's a big mess.

The problem child in this case is not just a boxed wine but an organic boxed wine. Its packaging proclaims "No Sulfites Added." (NSA is a common acronym.) Unfortunately, it is sulfites you need to counteract the yeasts and benign bacteria that may be present and may continue to work in a wine after it is made and bottled, or boxed. What is happening, therefore, to Brand X is that fermentation is still going on among all the unsulfited life sloshing about in the box. The buildup of gases eventually reaches a critical point. The cellars of Champagne used to be notorious for startling noises and a detritus of glass shards on the floor each spring, as warm weather reached even underground, and bottles of plain chardonnay or pinot noir whose remaining yeasts had been stultified by cold reawakened, re-fermented, and set about making, well, Champagne. Originally this was not what Dom Perignon wanted his wines to do; the bubbles which we now think so delightful were considered a flaw. Little did he know he was also making organic wine. But then, he could hardly help it. He flourished around 1700, when everything was organic, pre-industrial, pre-preservative, pre-pesticide -- pre-safe -- whether anybody liked it or not.

Which brings us to the great question -- I hope we're not shocked --: organic, shmorganic?

In my opinion, yes. It's not just because of the aggravations and failures of methode-champenoise, double magnum boxed wines. It's because organic wine, like organic things in general, logically can only be make-believe. Harmless make-believe, perhaps. But really. Let's think.

It simply makes no sense that a fruit or vegetable grown "organically" is any different, as a product, from one grown conventionally. Surely species don't change, surely an apple or a carrot, or a grape, does not emerge with a totally new color or new and better properties thanks to organic farming. At the end of the day Daucus carota var. sativa, the carrot, remains D. carota var. sativa. The great thing that organic farmers do, it seems, is to avoid pesticides, on the theory that a carrot not sprayed with protective scary chemicals is better for us "and for the planet" than one so treated.

That sounds plausible. When we think of ingesting poisons, we shudder. It seems right that food should come to our table without them. (Incidentally, The Organic Garden by Christine and Michael Lavelle, Hermes House, 2003, recommends, of all things, sulphur as a natural pesticide.) But there are two problems with this nice plausibility, and they are both problems that make-believe solves.

One is that we lack our ancestors' everyday experience with buggy food. Oh, I doubt it happened all the time, but I doubt also that everything from the grocery store was as pristine as we expect now. (Little snapshots of a previous era can be very startling. Katherine Mansfield wrote a memoir called In a German Pension, in which she describes a woman shuddering in revulsion at a gentleman's kind offer to share some fresh spring cherries. "I understand," he soothed her. "Ladies often don't care for cherries. It is the little worms ...." It was 1909.) We seem to think clean, sound fruits and vegetables are normal while pesticides literally cloud the issue, just as we tend to presume healthy children are normal while vaccines are dangerous impositions on the ordained functionings of the body. Not quite. Insect life cycles and larvae are perfectly natural, as are things like diphtheria and polio, and far more serious these last.

Because we think spotless produce is normal and won't tolerate anything less, we open the door to the only task the organic farmer may be permitted to do: he must go to Herculean efforts to make sure he gives us D. carotus var. sativa, while he is yet stripped of all the easy modern tools that have long made the carrot what we want, technically. He has to give us the default carrot, you might say, which is also an emotionally magical carrot, a carrot of pre-industrial escapist fantasy.

The buyer gets the emotional satisfaction of a adhering to a religious discipline, really, along with eating good produce. It seems people will pay for and enjoy that discipline, even when the produce itself can't be organic despite the grower's best efforts: "Even for organically grown fruit and vegetables," advises the site Natural Holistic Health, "it is wise to wash because the farmer in the next field over could have been spraying pesticides that inadvertently entered the organic farmers [sic] crops." So for those who believe, it seems that even D. carotus var paradoxica, the illusion of the illusion of obedience, is what matters.

"Green" consumers (and producers) will probably want to point out now that pesticides, after all, are meant to kill life and so surely it must be better to have no contact with them than any. That sounds right. Still it leaves open the question, what are they, and where?

For a long time intellectual fashion has persuaded us that those clouds of pesticides are, to mix a metaphor, laid on with a trowel and that our bodies stagger under their accumulating toxicity every day. Natural Holistic Health muses that, when we get sick, who knows but what it won't be from that. "When you or your family members are diagnosed with a chronic illness doctors cant [sic] often pinpoint an exact cause. Is the cause the pesticides from your produce and processed foods? You’ll never really have the answer." Possibly not. But remember that our forebears ate organic everything all their lives, and still died, often shockingly young. (What of? I don't remember, literally. The green movement, like the anti-vaccination movement, feeds off historical amnesia.) In any case talking of illness, do let's re-introduce ourselves to just one of humanity's stern old bunkmates, malaria. The classic example of the safe, effective, tragically and hysterically banned pesticide is DDT. It helps stop malaria, or would do if it were allowed. Michael Crichton writes, in his article "Environmentalism as a religion run amok:"

I can list some facts for you. I know you have not read any of these in the newspaper, because newspapers do not report them. I can tell you that DDT is not a carcinogen, did not cause birds to die, and never should have been banned. The people who outlawed it knew that it was not toxic and halted its use anyway. The DDT ban has caused the loss of tens of millions of people, mostly children, whose deaths are directly attributable to a callous, technologically advanced Western society that promoted the new cause of environmentalism by pushing a fantasy about a pesticide, and thus irrevocably harmed the Third World. Banning DDT is one of the most disgraceful episodes in the 20th-century history of America.

From reading Crichton you must conclude it was not merely tragically and hysterically banned, but maliciously banned. Let the little brown people far away die -- God, there must be plenty of Gabonese or whatever already -- while mosquitoes in their backyards live and thrive; we want to feel good about protecting Spaceship Earth, our Fragile Home. It's because we enjoy uninfested food and can expect to live past thirty, all thanks to modern chemical miracles, that we can afford both to forget the people who still do live hideously close to nature, and yet jump through emotionally satisfying hoops to pretend we do, too.

Perhaps you don't care to trust Michael Crichton. Trust, then, the words of the man who banned the godsend chemical, EPA director(1972) William Ruckleshaus. According to an article called "100 things you need to know about DDT" at the site, as an assistant attorney general he testified to DDT's "exemplary" record of safe use in the ending of malaria, explaining regretfully later to environmentalist leaders that, while in court, he had had to submit his emotions to scientific facts. (He was a member of the Environmental Defense Fund.) He banned it later because his position atop the EPA gave him the power frankly to "make policy" as he liked.

A preliminary P.S.: could the tide be turning? A new documentary on the banning of DDT, 3 Billion and Counting, premieres in Manhattan on Friday, September 17. That's tomorrow.

The Limbourg brothers, the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (October)

Thinking about organic wine, a little more

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