Reporter's Notes: The Politics of Green Wine

I often look at the chemical ingredients in what I buy. I shop at farmers markets for organic produce and use green cleaning supplies. So, it caught me off guard when a friend remarked, "you are so aware of what you eat, why aren't you just as curious about what you drink?" Well, we drink organic coffee but not organic wine. I was worried about sacrificing taste and I just didn't think most vineyards were heavily sprayed with pesticides. Then I learned that wine grapes are the second most sprayed crop in the state. This didn't seem like it could be that good for the farm workers, the Earth, or the consumer. Several studies have found trace amounts of pesticides in wine. They may be at extremely low amounts, but what kind of impact could pesticide residues have overtime?

Armed with a new green cause, I set out to find more information about eco-wines. I learned that organic wine is just one type of green wine -- there is also wine made with organic grapes. It turns out I had been drinking some of these wines and enjoying them. The thing is, you can't call it "organic wine" if the wine has added sulfites, a naturally occurring compound. Most winemakers add sulfites to help preserve the wine and make it more stable. If a wine is made from organic grapes but contains sulfites, the world "organic" can only be mentioned as part of the ingredient claim on the back of the bottle. No wonder I didn't know I was drinking wine farmed organically.

It turns out northern Sonoma County and Mendocino county are hotbeds for green wine. In the course of reporting this story, I visited several of these wine makers. Bonterra Vineyards, below Ukiah, has been farming organically since 1987 and now farms one of their ranches, McNab, biodynamically. Their red blend is nicely balanced and tastes very good.

Biodynamic is a novel form of organic farming practice with its roots in France. A biodynamic vineyard is a self-sustaining ecosystem -- making organic compost, removing chemicals from the soil and farming with the cycles of the Earth.  Biodynamic has its own international certification. (Here is a list of their certified wines). Just up the 101 from Bonterra is Parducci Wine Cellars. This family run company is farming organic grapes and in some cases, biodynamically. Parducci also claims to be one of the most sustainable wineries in the country.


Sustainable is a squishy term. Sustainable wineries may be running off solar power or doing creek restoration to save spawning salmon but they are not necessarily organic and they are not certified. However, the California Sustainable Winegrowing Program is working toward an industry certification. The idea is to raise the entire industry's practices and help vintners make more eco-friendly choices that often include using less chemicals in the vineyards.

Back to sulfites. This ended up being the main reason for the stigma still associated with green wine. Twenty years ago, green wines were uneven and there were not that many choices. Now, several of these eco-wines are winning high points from the industry. Organic wine can only contain naturally occurring sulfites, under 10ppm. Wines farmed organically must keep the added sulfites below 100ppm. Conventional wine can contain sulfites as high as 300ppm. When I was reporting this story, several folks asked me if I was going to explain why they get headaches from red wine. Isn't it the sulfites? Actually, it is not known why some people get headaches from drinking red wine. It could be the histamines. It doesn't look like it's the sulfites. Less than 1% of the population, according to the FDA, is sensitive to sulfites. The reaction is a respiratory one.

Anyway, if you enjoy wine, I encourage you to think beyond red and white but to consider green, too. To find out more, listen to our radio story and check out our links. Also, green wine pioneer, Paul Dolan together with Parducci has created a green wine handbook which is very helpful.

Listen to the The Politics of Green Wine radio report online.

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