Today marks the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. I’m sure it will be commemorated with ceremonies aplenty to hold Mother Nature’s hand and sing Kumbaya. It will also be a day when every marketing engine in the country will be revving up and spewing out message clouds declaring just how darn green and environmentally friendly this or that company is.
Wine companies are no different. Whether it is solar panels, recycled packaging or certified-organic, carbon-neutral, 10-percent-post-consumer-waste door handles, wineries want consumers to know about it. In fact, as I wrote the above sentence, I received a note from Evins Communications on Madison Avenue in New York that Hall Wines is now certified organic. I’m perpetually peppered—with organic pepper, no doubt—by such announcements.
I don’t want to sound too much like a cynic, so excuse me for asking: How does all this environmental sensitivity improve my wine?
Before I mobilize the Defenders of the Earth to violence, let me just say that careful, environmentally conscious grape growers do improve the quality of a wine and help ensure quality fruit for future stewards of the vineyards. But buried in the blizzard of hype lie the bodies of a lot of Johnny-Come-Latelies and band wagon jumpers.
Do we just give the pretenders of the faith a free ride on the backs of people like Paul Dolan, who has been walking the walk for decades and now is part owner of Parducci Wine Cellars? I say, “No!” Or at the least reserve a little skepticism for wineries that shout from the ramparts about how green they are.
Where was the band wagon when Nicolas Joly of Clos de la Coulée de Serrant told the French government in the 1970s to keep its subsidized synthetic herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilizers? Where was the crowd in 1991 when Paul Dolan produced Bonterra wines from organic-only grapes or, for that matter, when he walked away from Fetzer in 2004 to focus on Dark Horse Ranch, a sick, dying vineyard in Mendocino, Calif., that he nursed back to health?
The crowd was either laughing or watching to see if treating the land with a religious-like respect would produce any results. Now, most wineries are playing catch up or pretending they were green before it was cool. Hence, my uncertainty regarding wineries that flout their “environmentality” and say: “Buy our wines because we’re so GREEN!” If you buy a wine because it’s green—not because it’s good—you’re not helping yourself or Mother Earth.
A less-heralded winemaker that I brandish no skepticism for is Steven Canter. He is interested in one thing: making great wine. The fact that the path to this end takes his winery, Quivira Vineyards & Winery in Sonoma, Calif., through the arduous, expensive process of becoming certified biodynamic is merely incidental.
“I don’t worry too much about the certification,” said Canter during his recent visit to Atlanta. “[Biodynamic viticulture] is just one part of the puzzle. I’m constantly trying to delve deeper into the concept of holistic winemaking. I’m not trying to separate grape growing, fermentation or even how I live… I want my life and work to be one.”
What is certified biodynamic viticulture? The short answer is that one gets the stamp of approval from the Demeter Association USA that indicates you’ve followed their rules for farming and/or winemaking. Their rules? They are quasi mystical tenets that ensure all things are done with respect for the soil, sky and the greater universe. For Demeter-certified farmers, every day is not only Earth Day, it is Universe Day. Remember Obi Wan Kenobi and The Force? Well, biodynamic winegrowers believe that you can channel the energies of the cosmos into the soil, which will offer up some impressive fruit to make some impressive wine.
Canter understands the discreet snickering regarding such practices. He also finds it amusing that skeptics need quantifiable results to buy into biodynamics, but would never ask a priest, rabbi or monk for proof of a higher spiritual being. “You see poll numbers that say 85 to 90 percent of people believe in a higher power,” he said. “[Biodynamics founder, Rudolf] Steiner talked about angels, fairies and gnomes, there is no getting around that. If you want to get around that, you really can’t be biodynamic. You can’t just pick and choose what parts you want to do.”
Canter abides Demeter rules, but is “not obsessively slavish” to them. “It is just a good place to start the conversation. Steiner came up with three chords to create the blues; it will be up to us to see if we will be Jimi Hendrix or Milli Vanilli.”
Without being overtly malicious, he questions the practices of many California winemakers. “California’s arrogance is that we think we can grow everything and don’t need to consult the Old World or we can bank on technology to overcome anything,” Canter said. “I put more trust in 4.5 billion years of yeast evolution than in a guy handing me a yeast packet that was cultivated in Champagne.”
Happy 4,500,000,000th birthday, Earth, and thanks for all the wine!
• Two Thumbs Up
• Aromas of blueberry, violets and moderately toasted oak. Wonderfully complex flavors of blueberry, boysenberry, clove, cinnamon and vanilla bean. Medium-bodied and just begging for pizza, burgers or grilled chicken.
• Two Thumbs Way Up
• Pleasant aromas of honey comb, green apple and lime. Flavors of peach tea, pineapple, lime and orange zest with a long peppery finish. Lots of character.
(Wines are rated on a scale ranging up from thumbs down, one thumb mostly up, one thumb up, two thumbs up, two thumbs way up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.)