Most quality wines are organic in spirit, if not always in executionThe Journal of Wine Economics is an academic periodical, published by Cambridge University Press, whose content typically appeals to university researchers and a few wine-industry professionals. Recent issues have carried articles such as "Time-Varying Risk Premiums in the Framework of Wine Investment" and "The Value of Expert Opinion in the Pricing of Bordeaux Wine Futures."But a little-noticed paper in a recent issue of the journal tackles a subject of increasing interest to wine drinkers: organic wine.
Co-authored by researchers from the University of California at Los Angeles and a French business school, the article is titled "Does Organic Wine Taste Better An Analysis of Experts' Ratings."The authors built a database of more than 74,000 wines that had been scored on a 100-point scale by influential consumer-wine publications such as the Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator. Then they identified which wines were "ecocertified" -- that is, certified organic or biodynamic by recognized groups such as California Certified Organic Farmers.
"An important concern among consumers is that ecolabeled products might entail a trade-off between product quality and environmental impact," the authors wrote in explaining the rationale for their research project. "In other words, in order to achieve low environmental impact, green products would have to be of lower quality."If you've ever bought a scrawny, discolored bunch of celery in the organic aisle at the supermarket, you get the point.
But when it comes to wine, what the researchers found was just the opposite."Our results indicate that ecocertification is associated with a statistically significant increase in wine quality ratings," they wrote.How significant The organic and biodynamic wines in the sample scored, on average, about four points higher than non-ecocertified wines.
Which got me thinking: Why don't we see more organic labels on liquor-store shelves and restaurant wine lists While supermarkets these days stock hundreds of organic items, both in the produce and packaged-food aisles, ecocertification is still a rarity in the wine world.Consider Halifax, a restaurant in theW Hotel in Hoboken that specializes in farm-to-table cuisine. Executive chef Seadon Shouse goes to great lengths to source locally grown ingredients from farmers who practice sustainable agriculture.
And beverage director Carlos Arteaga embraces a similar philosophy when it comes to the wine list."It's a no-brainer," Arteaga says of the notion that organic vineyards produce better wine. "All of the flavors of wine and characteristics of wine come from the soil.
Everything is dependent on the environment. If you put chemicals in the soil, that's gonna be there in the wine. Chemicals can hide the flavors that come from the minerals and rocks in the soil.
"Indeed, most of the 65 or so wines on Halifax's list come from vineyards, both in Europe and the United States, that adhere to sustainable practices. But only a single bottle -- a Spanish white -- carries an organic certification on the label.A number of winemakers and importers, merchants and sommeliers I spoke to said most quality-conscious vintners around the world employ organic techniques both in managing their vineyards and running their wineries -- from using owls and other raptors to help control pests to relying on renewable energy to power their bottling lines.
"A lot of people are adhering to sustainability," says Tony DiDio, a New York-based marketing agent for top-tier Italian and California wine estates, including Nino Franco, Peter Zemmer and Miner Family Vineyards. "A lot of people are composting instead of using chemical fertilizers. Or they're bringing in special insects that eat the bugs on the vine, rather than spraying.
"Take Peter Zemmer, a winemaker in northern Italy who makes a delicious pinot bianco. Not only are his vineyards sustainably farmed, but his winery is covered with solar panels -- enough to meet all of its energy needs.But like so many other winemakers who are committed, in principle, to sustainable vineyard management and natural winemaking techniques, Zemmer eschews formal certifications.
The reasons for this are varied, but boil down to two main factors. First, in order for a wine to be certified organic, the winemaker can't add sulfites, which have been used for centuries to prevent spoilage. Dick Arrowood, one of the best-known winemakers in California, runs a winery called Amapola Creek whose vineyards are certified organic.
But the wine itself is not, because Arrowood believes in the judicious use of sulfites."Adding a very tiny amount of sulfites allows the true character of the wine to show through, protecting it from the masking effects of oxidation," he maintains.Beyond sulfites, most winemakers insist on retaining the option of treating their vineyards with nonorganic fungicides or pesticides in extreme circumstances.
This isn't so important in arid climates, where mold and rot are rare, but it is in winegrowing regions such as New Jersey that get an abundance of rainfall.Martin Sinkoff, head of marketing at Frederick Wildman and Sons, a New York importer whose portfolio includes a number of legendary French wines, says most of his winemakers are deeply committed to organic practices. But being certified organic is another story.
"I have a very good friend who is a winemaker in Bordeaux, and he put it this way: 'If you're a parent and you have a child and your child falls ill, would you not use modern medicine to treat the child Are you only going to use homeopathic medicine' That's what happens in the vineyard. Sometimes there are diseases that can't be eradicated with an organic product."David Rossi, who makes highly acclaimed pinot noir at his Fulcrum winery in California, says while he's all in favor of sustainable winemaking practices, there's no scientific reason why wines that are certified organic would taste better than those that are not.
And he's quite skeptical about biodynamic farming, an ultra-organic approach pioneered in the early 20th century by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. Biodynamic winemakers consider such factors as the phases of the moon when timing their harvests."Biodynamic isn't rooted in science and has nothing to do with growing good grapes," says Rossi, who divides his time between his winemaking facility in the Napa Valley and his home in Monmouth County.
Robby Younes, wine director and vice president of hospitality at Crystal Springs Resort in Sussex County, says most of the best wines in theworld come from vineyards that are sustainably farmed. And he should know, considering that Crystal Springs boasts the most impressive collection of rare wines of any restaurant in the United States.But few winemakers are willing to have their hands tied by the strictures of a certifying authority such as California Certified Organic Farmers or Demeter, which enforces biodynamic principles.
"If a virus or worm is hitting a vineyard, a winemaker who is sitting on a $15 million crop isn't not going to spray," he said.The upshot is that many, perhaps even most, of the better wines available in New Jersey liquor stores and restaurants are sustainably farmed, if not technically organic. But there's no way of telling by looking at the label.
So, what's a health-conscious, environmentally committed wine drinker to do Steve Mignogna, owner of an upscale pizzeria in Asbury Park called Talula's, recommends familiarizing yourself with importers who specialize in vintners who practice natural winemaking. Examples include Indie Wineries, Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, Polaner Selections and Skurnik Wines.Mignogna, a devotee of naturally made wines, wasn't at all surprised by the results of the study published in the Journal of Wine Economics.
Nearly every one of the bottles on Talula's wine list is organically grown, even if it doesn't say so on the label."There are a lot of really good organic wines that aren't certified organic," he says.If you have any lingering doubts about the quality of organic wine, certified or otherwise, California's Benziger Family Winery offers a number of organic and biodynamic options.
I'm especially impressed with the 2014 Benziger Signaterra "West Rows" Chardonnay, made from organically grown grapes, and the 2014 Benziger de Coelo Arbore Sacra Pinot Noir, which is certified biodynamic by Demeter.From Italy, I'd highly recommend two organic wines from Tuscany: the 2014 Col d'Orcia Rosso di Montalcino and the 2014 Castello di Verrazzano Rosso -- an excellent value at about $14 a bottle. And from Spain, check out the 2014 Granza Ribera del Duero, made from organically grown tempranillo grapes.
COCKTAIL CORNERThe DrinkNew ArkThe SourceBurgMilitary Park, Newark(973) it Works"The New Ark is one of our most popular cocktails at Burg," says Jette Starniri, vice president of operations. "At first, our clients started ordering it because of their curiosity with the name's historic tie-in, but let's be honest: Who doesn't love a light and refreshing tequila cocktail All of our cocktails pay homage to Newark's history, and we like to think that drinks like our New Ark are helping to start conversations about this revitalizing city and the historic value it has."The Recipe1.
5 ounces blanco (white) tequila0.5 ounce triple sec1.25 ounces lychee juice0.
5 ounce lime juice1 ounce coconut waterCombine all ingredients in cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake and pour into highball glass. Garnish with lime wheel on rim of glass.
WINE OF THE MONTH2015 St. Urbans-Hof Wiltinger Alte Reben Kabinett, Germany ($18)Don't let the Germanic nomenclature scare you: This is an amazing bottle of white wine, with a combination of lush fruit and bracing acidity that makes it ideal for summertime sipping. The term Kabinett indicates an off-dry style that's often a little too sweet for American wine drinkers.
But in this case, the Riesling grapes were grown on old vines ("alte reben") in Germany's Saar Valley, one of the coldest vineyard areas in the world. The result is a wine that delivers a one-two punch: ripe fruit flavors layered with what winemaker Nik Weis describes as a "minerally smokiness," followed by a crisp, dry finish. Serve well-chilled with spicy Asian or Southwestern cuisine.