Rod Byers: Keep drinking until the headaches stop
I have been on a wine quest, investigating if and how much wine I should drink, whether it is good for me, and why it sometimes causes me instant headaches?
My search introduced me to the world of organics, including the curious terrain of biodynamics, the elusiveness of sustainability, and the murkiness of natural wine.
First biodynamics. Biodynamic grape growing begins like organic growing, allowing no synthetic chemicals, but continues with another strict set of regulations.
Introduced by Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s, biodynamic agriculture is based on the holistic idea that everything in the universe is interconnected. Growers treat the animals, vineyard, and farm as one self-sustaining ecosystem with each portion contributing to the whole.
Biodynamic agriculture uses astrological influences and the lunar calendar to divide tasks into certain days. Leaf days are for watering, root days for pruning, fruit days for harvesting and on flower days the vineyard rests.
Biodynamic agriculture raises eyebrows as a pseudo-science in part because of their peculiar soil management techniques. While burying oak tree bark in a sheep’s skull or yarrow in a stag’s bladder appears quirky, results show increased microbial soil activity and vineyard health.
Rather than one guy in a tractor spraying ten rows at a time, biodynamics requires feet in the vineyard. While chemical costs are less, labor costs are higher.
Demeter International has been certifying biodynamic agriculture since 1928.
While biodynamic agriculture is specific to which skull, sustainability is more elusive. The various sustainability groups prioritize conservation, preservation, social responsibility and economic feasibility.
The California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance offers a list of 140 vineyard and 104 winery best practices. To be certified a winegrower has to hit a percentage of them. They could focus on natural habitats, water conservation, energy efficiency, or a good benefits plan and be within the umbrella.
Nothing need be organic. While some sustainable winegrowers may farm organically, guidelines simply call for lower risk pesticides whenever possible.
Mostly they are the good guys. Sustainability is a good sign on the back label but it’s difficult to know exactly what it means.
With both biodynamic and sustainability, you could be talking about either grape growing or winemaking. When the topic turns to natural wine, the conversation is only about winemaking. It goes without saying that the grapes are organic.
Just to recap, once the organic grapes are inside the winery, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, for the wine to be certified organic there can be no added sulfites, and yeasts must be either native or organic.
While conventional wine allows over 270 various additives, wine that is certified organic has a list of about 70 organic and naturally occurring acids, salts, and enzymes to draw from. While sulfites aren’t one of them, the organic winemaker has plenty of tools to work with.
Biodynamic winemaking is more restrictive allowing only indigenous yeasts, and prohibiting any sugar, enzyme, acid, or tannin additions. However, sulfites are permitted, up to 100 parts per million, as are bentonite or egg whites, but only from organic, free-range chickens.
The idea behind biodynamics is to grow the best grapes possible and then get out of the way and let the wine make itself.
While both organic and biodynamic wine have specific regulations requiring third party verification, natural wine is less concerned with all that. There are no standards.
A natural wine is generally considered to be produced in small quantities, by independent producers, from low-yielding organic vineyards, without adjustments or manipulation in the winery.
They are not fined or filtered, and contain no more than 10 parts per million sulfites in reds and 25 parts in whites, if any.
But that is just the unofficial code. None of it is regulated. They leave themselves room to be flexible, whatever that means.
Does all this cosmic love, conservation, and organic practices make wine taste better?
As every wine drinker knows, wine is subjective. We are often predisposed to our position before even taking the first sip.
Until recently there was no organic score board.
In a study published in the Journal of Wine Economics titled “Does Organic Wine Taste Better?” Professor Magali A. Delmas of University of California Los Angeles’s Institute of the Environment downloaded 74,148 reviews of California wines from 1998 to 2009. They examined reviews from the Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast, and Wine Spectator to determine whether being organic or biodynamic made any difference on the ratings.
The results were surprising.
First, they discovered two-thirds of the wine makers who use organic grapes and get certified don’t put it on their bottles, even though it is more expensive to produce. While they believe organic grapes make better wine they are afraid of the organic wine stigma.
The second surprising thing was that organic and biodynamic wines scored an average of 4.1 points higher than conventional wines. Put another way, that could be the difference between 87 and 91 points.
Ten years, 74,000 wines in blind tastings, with the most respected wine critics in the world, how do you rig that?
Bringing it back to a personal level, I have been struggling with instant wine headaches. That’s what got me started on this.
Through my quest I have discovered a world of organic, biodynamic, low-sulfite, low alcohol, low oak, and even orange wines. I’m encouraged. With so many areas to explore, I’ll keep drinking till the headaches stop.
Rod Byers, CWE, is a Certified Wine Educator and wine writer as well as a California State Certified Wine Judge. He is the host of the local television show Wine Talk. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and he can be reached at 530-802-7172.
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