Behind the righteous rise of natural wine

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The term “organic” has been so overused in our culture that it’s become a nebulous indicator of virtue and goodness more than anything else. There’s an organic version of everything, from kale to condoms, so it’s safe to say that this is an enduring trend. But technically, claiming that something is organic needs to rely on a substantive measure. For example, the USDA will label certain produce organic if pesticides were not used to grow it. But when it comes to natural and organic wines — which are having a moment — what's the story? Are they better for us and the environment or just a part of this wellness halo we’re so hell bent on acquiring?

What exactly is organic wine?

Just to be clear, "natural" and "organic" mean slightly different things when it comes to wine — and the two terms are often used interchangeably. "To label a wine 'organic' or 'biodynamic' requires following a long list of rules and paying for certification; to call it 'natural' is merely to make a general claim of virtue," as Rachel Monroe so astutely said in the New Yorker. Lots of wines can call themselves "natural," if they produce their wine more consciously. But being labeled as "organic" takes a little more effort.

“In order for a wine to be organic, there has to be compliance with the National Organic Program rules,” says Daniel Ward, associate professor of plant biology and the director of the New Jersey Center for Wine Research and Education at Rutgers University. The USDA apparently creates these guidelines, ensuring “domestic and international marketing of fresh and processed food that is organically produced” “meet consistent, uniform standards.” These guidelines are thorough — like War and Peace thorough, so ultimately, there’s a governing body doing quality control.

In order to use the term “organic,” wine must be grown in accordance with the USDA’s criteria. Materials and ingredients involved can’t be synthetic or manufactured. Ward adds that the production of the grapes and the production of the wine from the grapes involve separate certification processes.

Ward also tells me that in order to be deemed organic, the process of turning grapes into wine must follow certified practices. Grapes grown for vino must be clear of any non-organic materials for at least three years. Vineyard grounds stake that long to clear the additives and fertilizer naturally, so a vineyard growing inorganic Riesling today can be organic by 2024. And for many vintners, it just might be worth the wait.

Is organic wine healthier for me?

The answer to this lies mostly in one additive: sulfites. A big part of wine production, sulfites are a food preservative widely used in winemaking, as they have the unique ability to maintain the flavor and freshness of wine.

While they’re found in many foods and beverages, they’re particularly associated with a long list of side effects related that familiar Cabernet-induced headachey hangover. Red wine headaches are often attributed to histamine intolerance, which is akin to an allergy, and may happen quicker than other alcohol-induced hangovers, which are mostly due to dehydration. Although, delightfully, those two evils can happen in tandem.

Basically, sulfites keep your bottle from turning into vinegar before it’s purchased or tasted, and while appreciated, they aren’t necessary these days to keep any fresher wines safe if you take the right precautions. “Depending on the methods of distribution," Ward says, though, "you may need to protect the wine for longer or shorter periods of time at different temperatures and situations that are out of your control.”

Organic foods being more desirable is undoubtedly linked to status, but the increased demand for these artificial preservative-free foods has a solid scientific basis. Preservatives, as I'm sure you've gathered by now, aren’t great for us.

Is organic wine better for the environment?

Organic wine is a very welcome, good step forward for our world’s continuity, Ward tells me. With this brand new administration doing tree-hugging good deeds like rejoining the Paris Climate agreement and slowing the construction of nature-ruining pipelines, there’s going to be renewed interest in what's needlessly hurting our planet these next four years. Organic winemaking ideally sustains our buzz while sending fewer pesticides, fertilizers, and other inorganic chemicals into the earth.

“I think people want to participate in a society and in an economy that takes care of the environment and preserves it for future generations — and doesn't inadvertently cause more problems than it needs to,” Ward says.

Is it generally more expensive?

Organic food is typically overpriced. We know this. It costs more to be socially conscious, weirdly. There’s a lot to say about how organic culture is elitist and racially exclusive too, but I’ll save that for another article.

Organic wine, from what I’m seeing, doesn’t appear to be much more expensive than its equivalent in the non-organic section. My personal picks for natural wines are this Lambrusco Rosso and Cameron Diaz’s new venture, Avaline (red, white, or sparkling), which is made with organic grapes.

Ward believes that because organic wines aim to reduce risk to the body and the environment, they're going to be around for a while. Hey, if the wine tastes good and takes my hangover down a notch, pour it up.