While wine is never going to take the place of your daily green juice as a health tonic, it turns out there are better, cleaner bottles to sip and share with your holiday party hosts. And it’s only getting easier to find them.
“There’s definitely been an explosion of interest in natural, organic, and biodynamic wines, both from consumers and from wine bars, restaurants, and producers,” says Adam Morganstern, editor of Organic Wine Journal.
This interest naturally creates more choices for wine-lovers, since not only are more winemakers choosing to try healthier methods, but more producers are “coming out of the organic closet,” Morganstern explains. “A lot of the world’s top winemakers have already been organic, but they haven’t put it on their label because they were afraid it would scare consumers off. Now, they see it as a benefit.”
The problem? Tangled regulations and haphazard labeling systems make it difficult to determine what’s actually going on at a vineyard when you’re standing in a wine shop in Tribeca. So, we sat down with David Lillie, co-owner of Chambers Street Wines, a shop that prides itself on choosing wines that are made with lots of love and care and less toxic chemicals, who gave us these tips.
1. Understand what’s in the wine (and what isn’t). Just like with food, “natural,” as a category doesn’t mean much, says Lillie. But some small winemakers use it to distinguish themselves from commercial operations who use machine harvesting and lots of additives. “When grapes are broken with this [machine] method, they’re oxidizing and bacteria is growing on the way to the winery. So, later, there’s a large addition of sulfur dioxide to sterilize the wine,” explains Lillie.
Sulfur dioxide is considered unsafe for humans at a certain level, but how much you’re taking in depends on lots of factors. Commercial growers also tend to use more additives to create uniform flavor, like sugar, glycerin, and much more.
Another concern is residues from pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers, especially since a 2008 study showed significant residue levels in an array of bottles from Bordeaux. An organic certification means the grapes must be grown without these chemicals, but it only regulates what happens in the vineyard, not in the cellar. (Although USDA organic also prohibits using added sulfur dioxide, EU regulations do not.) Finally, many wines are grown biodynamically, which takes organic a step further by eschewing chemicals and preserving the health of the soil.
2. Learn to read the label. A USDA organic certification label is easy to spot, so look for it. But many imported wines with healthy practices won’t have it. Ditto domestic, small vineyards with limited funds to apply for it. Other certification labels to look for: Demeter, Agriculture Biologique, EcoCert, and Nature et Progres. They all mean something slightly different, but universally signal cleaner wine.
3. Let someone else (you trust) pick for you. Sommeliers exist because sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you just can’t taste that hint of pear. So how do you expect to also detect sulfur dioxide levels and pesticide residue? Look for shops like Chambers Street Wines that have it in their charter to choose cleaner wines for you. Organic Wine Journal is making it even easier for you by launching City Guides that detail the shops, bars, and restaurants that do this.
In the end, your holiday hosts won’t just be healthier, they’ll be sipping happy. “The health issues are certainly there, but for us, anyway, it’s more of a taste issue than a health issue,” Lillie explains. “We’re looking at all of the different ways the wine is made, both in the vineyard and the cellar. It’s not that we just want it to be organic and biodymanmic because of the methods, it’s because in the end, it’s better wine.” —Lisa Elaine Held