Are Organic and Biodynamic Wines Worth It?

Categories: Unscrewed

Lauren Mowery

Last week I attended a panel about biodynamic and organic agriculture and its influence on the wine industry. Roger Cohen's recent op-ed in the New York Times was a hot topic -- the one in which he enthusiastically (and myopically) applauded a study by Stanford University that concluded organic food isn't more nutritious than commercial food. He distilled his opinion down to "Organic, schmorganic."

Ugh. Cohen may have directed his rant at Le Pain Quotidien, but the wine industry faces its share of misunderstandings too. More and more wines are labeled "organic" or "biodynamic" than ever -- do you know what the labels mean?

Organic farming seeks to coexist with the natural system, rather than dominate it. Synthetic pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers are prohibited; as is human sewage sludge fertilizer (eww!), GMO's (Genetically Modified Organisms), irradiation and biosolids. Farmland must also be free of prohibited chemicals, usually for three years or more. Certification comes from the National Organic Program run by the USDA (more on that later). One controversial caveat of organic grapevine farming is the allowance of Bordeaux mixture, which contains copper, for use as a fungicide. It is permitted in restricted quantities.

Biodynamics is organic farming in conjunction with the principles of Rudolf Steiner; you may know it as farming with cow dung and the cosmos since the use of compost and manure is vital, and farmers follow an astronomical sowing and planting calendar. Biodynamic proponents view the entire farm as a whole, and seek to heal and restore life and vitality by encouraging the interrelationship between soil, plants and animals. For example, biodynamic farms often keep their own bee hives to support the farm's cycle of plant life. Certification in the U.S is given by Demeter-USA. Biodynamic guidelines also allow the use of Bordeaux mixture, but in even more restricted quantities than Organic farming.

But it's complicated.

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