Seeking out eco-friendly wines can prove trickier than simply reading a label. Because organic wines are still overcoming their once-maligned reputation, some vintners like Coturri Winery prefer to leave the O-word off the bottle altogether. Other small producers, such as Clos Saron, Gruet, and Lumos, don't bother with the time consuming and expensive process of getting their fields officially certified, even though they grow and process the grapes according to organic or biodynamic principles. Often the only way to know is to ask your wine seller for guidance. But whether you get the scoop from the merchant or the bottle itself, it helps to know your terms.
In 2002, the USDA established stringent rules for who can and cannot label a wine "organic." In addition to the exclusive use of organic grapes (grown without genetically modified seeds, fertilizers made with sewage sludge, or most conventional pesticides), a wine bearing the "USDA Organic" seal or the term "100% Organic" must not contain any added sulfites, and the vineyard must be inspected annually to ensure compliance with government standards.
The most holistic and environmentally sensitive form of agriculture dates back to the 1920s, when the enterprising scientist-mystic-philosopher Rudolf Steiner first looked to the cosmos to cultivate his garden. Besides eliminating all synthetic inputs, biodynamic farmers plant, prune, and harvest according to the phases of the moon and cosmological cycles, and apply special compost teas to help "enliven" the soil. One element is what's called "preparation 500": cow horns stuffed with manure, buried in the vineyard usually when the moon is in Virgo, and exhumed around the spring equinox. The manure is then mixed with water and sprayed on the ground to stimulate root growth. Look for either the terms biodynamic or "Demeter," the global certification association.
All wines contain naturally occurring sulfites, which prevent them from spoiling in the bottle. About 1 in 100 people are sensitive to sulfites, though, with reactions ranging from mild stomach cramps to nausea to asthma attacks (in rare cases it can be fatal). USDA-certified organic wines must not contain any added sulfites -- a controversial requirement, as wines produced without added sulfites are less stable and more prone to spoiling unless stored at a constant 55 degrees. They also cannot age as long as typical wines; white wines from Frey, for example, should be consumed within 18 months of their bottling date (their reds can age up to eight years). Organic wines with added sulfites will say "Made with organic grapes."
Winegrowers making a broad attempt at environmental responsibility (improving soil through the use of cover crops and composting) may refer to their vineyard as "sustainably farmed." Sometimes this indicates that the winery is transitioning from conventional farming to organic, though the more common term is "in transition." It's a self-policing policy with no standard regulations to follow, which means that farmers may revert to more invasive, toxic methods from time to time.
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Text by Jaime Gross