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As 'green' wines rise, will confusion follow?


Frog's Leap owner John Williams has been a leading proponent of organic viticulture for decades. (Tori Wilder)

Sales of so-called “green” wines increased 12.1 percent over the past year, nearly four times the growth rate of wine sales in general, according to a new Nielsen Company report released last week at the Green Wine Summit in Santa Rosa, Calif.

The survey, reported by WineBusiness.com, also found that consumers are confused about what makes a wine “sustainable,” “organic,” or “biodynamic." I've tried to clear it up in previous columns, but this confusion will probably only grow as these terms are used indiscriminately as marketing tools without set standards or definitions.

The industry has made several praiseworthy efforts to set standards for these terms. The Wine Institute, the California industry association, has published a textbook of sustainability practices to guide its members. Oregon has LIVE (Low Input Viticulture and Enology), which certifies wineries that use sustainable practices. But there is no easy or uniform definition of “sustainable viticulture.” And with Monsanto advertising itself as the epitome of sustainable agriculture, consumers are bound to become leery of winery claims about farming practices or reduced carbon footprints.

As for “organic” wines, the U.S. government confused that nomenclature with its organic agriculture regulations a few years ago, when it prohibited wines with added sulfites from being able to display the certified-organic label. Since most winemakers say they need to add some sulfites to keep wine from spoiling, the best the industry can do now is label its product “made with organically grown grapes.” That seems a halfway measure at best, and there is not a single certifying organization to give that claim any stature or authenticity.

There is a single organization for certifying biodynamic wines: Demeter USA. Demeter is not a wine industry creation, which gives it an extra measure of credibility. There is still some gray area, though, as wineries can claim to follow biodynamic practices without applying for certification, and there is no third-party verification of those claims.

Another survey reported at the summit, from Full Glass Research, found that 59 percent of those who purchased organic or sustainable wines said they did so because the viticultural practices were better for the planet. Of those who don't buy them, 38 percent osaid they rarely see them on store shelves, and 33 percent said they simply do not care.

I like the "green wine" movement, but I worry that it has become a marketing gimmick as much as a form of viticulture. A wine made by practices that respect the Earth should taste better, but when every wine becomes "green," how will we be able to tell?

-- Dave McIntyre

By The Food Section  |  December 8, 2009; 3:30 PM ET
Categories:  Wine  | Tags: Dave McIntyre, sustainable food, wine  
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