Earlier this week, a lively conversation with a group of west coast wine buyers proffered an anecdote for the viticultural ages.
A guest, recounted a young and gifted sommelier, had asked them to pour an organic wine for the table. Being the consummate wine professional that they were, they presented said guest with an organic wine. With wine in glass, said guest then offered the following consideration.
“This wine doesn’t taste organic,” they said to the sommelier with an unconcealed note of disappointment and distaste.
What was the sommelier to say? The customer is always right, as the Hippocratic oath of hospitality goes.
Is “organic” a character, a nature that can be described through sensorial observation? Even the most ardent organic enthusiasts would be hard-pressed to make the argument that it can.
No one disputes that organic farming can deliver wines of high quality. It’s equally true that conventionally farmed wines can achieve the same level of quality. It’s also worth noting that the broader organic movement has prompted many wine growers to incorporate organic practices in their approach to viticulture, sometimes with spectacular results.
But a divide as wide as the Atlantic Ocean spans the perceptions of well-intentioned consumers, the winemakers who grow and transform the grapes, and the service professionals who serve to bridge the gap between producer and consumer.
The seductive power of the “organic” brand has also led countless unscrupulous bottlers to claim wines are organically farmed when in fact they are not.
I’ve heard many prominent grape growers say that truly organic wines are a myth. It’s impossible to avoid the residue of chemically based farming, they point out. Some have even argued that without the larger scale conventional farming by big wine (which restrains the spread of vine disease), small-scale organic farming wouldn’t be possible.
There are so many arguments to be made for and against the way we perceive organic wines. Ultimately, the sommelier found a wine that the guest approved of. But the great rift between the sacred (organic) and the profane (conventional) does no other service than to prop up our vanity.
People do get enamoured with what are becoming simplistic if not deceptive labels such as “organic”, without understanding the details. I get the question all the time on vineyard tours: “what’s the different between organic, sustainable and biodynamic?” I try to get them to leave their preconceived judgements in their cars.
And “Organic” farming isn’t always a panacea for everything. Copper and sulfur are both organic vineyard treatments. Both are hard on the environment and on the vineyard workers. If you see vineyard staff wearing hazmat suits out there, they may not be applying glyphosate but “farming organically” instead.