SNOB is an acronym for the four major “green” wine designations: Sustainable, Natural, Organic, and Biodynamic. You may want to add some of these wines to your cellar or give them as Holiday gifts to friends who are earth-friendly in their wine choices. Here’s what you need to know.
S is for Sustainable
Sustainable means you can Keep It Going. It’s a common-sense agricultural principle that calls for producing wine in a manner than conserves natural resources and supports the health of the environment over the long term.
When we moved onto our California ranch in 1971 it had grapes growing, planted in 1905. The man we bought it from showed us how to farm it, using the same techniques his dad had used. Guess what? In 1905 they didn’t have pesticides or chemicals to farm with. Or tractors. And today, those vines are still producing stunning, award-winning, world-class wines after 102 years. I’d say that’s sustainable.
The principles of sustainability apply in the cellar too. It means using green energy, recycling at every level and conserving water. Also,a sustainable cellar keeps a “closed loop” – wastes like grape skins and seeds go back to the vineyards to promote soil health, with as few outside amendments as possible.
N is for Natural
This is the newest category, and the most loosely defined. In fact, “natural” has no legal definition in the wine world; a contrast to the food world, where the standards for “natural” labeling are regulated by the FDA. Wine can skirt many of the rules that food has to follow because it is regulated by the TTB (formerly the BATF), which is a division of the Treasury department and cares mainly about taxes.
Natural wine is defined, in rough terms, very similarly to organic wine. It is understood these wines contain no additives and were made without using “artificial” processes. The problem is that nobody has defined the terms “additive” and “artificial.” What’s more, nobody is looking over anyone’s shoulder. But, I’m a huge proponent of making wines naturally, and we strive to do so at our Hook & Ladder winery by using natural or native yeasts, harvesting grapes in a manner that reduces the need for artificial
processing and making wines by hand in small batches.
O is for Organic
This category is regulated by the USDA, and wines that are organic have the USDA Certified Organic seal. Organic is a massive and growing category in supermarkets, there are probably a gazillion USDA Certified Organic wines on the shelf, right? Wrong. Out of the 100,000-plus available wines worldwide, there are fewer that 1,000 organic options. That’s because producing USDA certified organic wine is a tough task. It’s pretty straightforward to grow organic grapes and get certified. No pesticides or
herbicides, no non-organic fertilization. You are allowed to irrigate, and you can also bring in organic fertilizer from other regions (which is not a good practice for ultra-premium wine, in my opinion). In any case, follow these rules, and after a couple of years, bang! Your grapes are organic! Take those grapes into the cellar and the trouble begins. To meet the US standards for organic wine, the naturally occurring antioxidant sulfur dioxide (SO2) can’t exceed a level of 10 parts per million. This is silly. Sulphur
dioxide is in no way “artificial” or “an additive”; it is a naturally occurring antioxidant which results from fermentation and helps naturally preserve the wine. The 10-per-million limit is arbitrary. Finally, organic wines from Europe are allowed 50 parts per million, which is way more than you’ll find in most commercially produced premium wines in the US.
If the USDA adopted Europe’s standards for SO2 content in organic wine, my guess is that almost half of the American wine now on supermarket shelves could be Certified Organic within two years (the time it takes to certify the grapes themselves). To further complicate matters, European wines meeting European organic standards are, in fact, labeled organic for sale in the U.S.
Right now you can buy wines made from organic grapes without the USDA certification that say “Organically Grown,” and that’s a step in the right direction.
B is for Biodynamic
Biodynamic is a super-regulated category. But contrary to popular conceptions, biodynamic does not mean “super-organic.” In the early 1900s Rudolph Steiner was hired by the French government to solve their agricultural ills. He saw that farmers had become disconnected from the land by tractors and chemicals, and came up with natural compounds that allowed farmers to kick the chemical habit. These compounds remain the most controversial component of biodynamics today, simply because they haven’t been scientifically proven. Biodynamic wines are not bound by the same regulations as organic wine in regard to SO2. This makes biodynamics a more attractive option in terms of compliance, wine preservation and marketing. Anecdotal evidence shows that Steiner methods yield healthier plants, tastier fruit and more naturally balanced wines.
Now you know. Happy holiday gift-giving and cheers for a great New Year!