I knew I tasted a hint of soy milk

December 1, 2007

It’s always nice when Salon gets away from political dithering and back to covering stories I care about, like this one about organic wine. Over the past year, I’ve watched the proliferation of little icons affixed to the descriptions of wines at my local wine store, which you now all know about and can’t wait to visit. I can’t really keep track of them all: there’s one little lady bug for organic, a different little lady bug for biodynamic (a Euro-concept that I don’t really know the meaning of), and as I saw last night, another symbol for sustainable. So, a little primer on what all these things might really mean for my wine drinking habits is welcome.

As Clarren explains on Salon, the use of the word “organic” on the label itself is rather strictly governed in the US. To use it, not only do the grapes have to be grown with “40-foot buffer zones from farms that spray specific chemicals,” they have to be without synthetic additives of any kind. This is a bit of a problem, because nearly all wines depend on adding sulfites to ensure consistency of flavor and shelf longevity. Although sulfites are a natural byproduct of fermentation, wine needs more than what comes naturally to become and stay the drink we know and love, especially white wines.

Clarren reports that some people think that these sulfites are absolutely necessary to good wine, and that without them you are risking seriously subpar wine. Now, all of this was news to me, but it does kind of back up a feeling that I’d been having for a while now, which is that, to be brutally honest, most of the wines labeled “organic” that I’ve tried have tasted a little funny to me, kind of gluey with a hint of soymilk. That’s why I haven’t really made it a point to buy them. If they look interesting, I’ll give it a try, but I don’t seek out organic wine.

As it turns out, if I want to support organic growing processes while I get my drink on, there’s another kind of label to look for: the ingredient label. Winemakers who refuse to keep sulfites out on principle of taste are still allowed to put “organic grapes” on their ingredients list, but not “organic” on the front label itself.

But again, to be honest, when I buy wine I’m mostly interested in how it tastes and who made it. It’s an area where human stories are often a big part of the product. I’ve come to think of a bottle of wine like a book of poetry: at its best, a result of an intense labor of love created in full knowledge that most of the effort will be lost on the marketplace but created with perfectionistic standards and high ambitions nonetheless. This isn’t always true, and in my price range there’s far more corporate than artesenal <sp> production, but sometimes it is the case and I find that inspiring.

For the final word, I defer to a crazy-ass vinophile Frenchman: “This whole debate about sulfites is ludicrous,” says Véronique Raskin, the French-born founder of the San Francisco-based Organic Wine Co., importer of French, Italian, Spain and Portuguese wines. “With all the time we’ve wasted discussing sulfites, we could have saved the rain forests and a few other actual problems.”

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