Wed 2 Jul 2008
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all in favor of protecting and nurturing the environment. Let’s not fool around with Mother Nature (though she was pretty hot in those old commercials) and all that. In terms of vineyards and grape-growing, let us, by all means — and these criteria are taken from “Our Seven Standards” of sustainability recently issued by Sanford Winery and Vineyards — preserve winery estate land for natural inhabitants; use natural springs requiring no electrical pumps as water sources; use minimal irrigation; use energy efficient buildings and recycled and reclaimed materials; use natural methods (“whenever possible”) for controlling grapevine fungal pathogens; use cover crops to control erosion and improve soil structure and nutrition; encourage predatory birds to help control vineyard pests.
These are admirable practices. Three years ago this month I visited a number of vineyards in the Sonoma Valley, including the well-known Rancho Salina, which occupies about 200 acres 750 to 1,000 feet above the valley floor; 40 of those acres, beautifully laid out and maintained, are planted with cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and malbec. The vineyard is farmed using sustainable methods. The rows between vines are rotated with cover crops each year, grasses and clovers alternating with legumes, all of which provide nitrogen to the soil and help prevent erosion. Weeds, far from being regarded as enemies, are allowed to grow. Beside the fact that the view is spectacular, the vineyard exudes a sense of serenity and harmony, of things being done right, though, frankly, it would be difficult to find a hill-top vineyard, sustainably farmed or not, that didn’t embody serenity and harmony; location is everything
But let’s face it: Being green brings in the green. The principle moral decadence that afflicts American culture (and hence world culture) is the pervasive influence of and the complete permeation of marketing and advertising in all aspects of life, from bottled water to American Girl dolls to presidential campaigns to brands of t-shirts and jeans that start out hip and cool in New York and L.A. and end up in the Wal-Marts of Dubuque and Peoria.
The same pressure to create, to compete, to buy and consume, the same pretense of social significance affects popular movements and ideologies. It’s so easy so slap a “green” label on a product — a mattress, a pair of shoes, a tennis ball, a bottle of wine — and bask in the fashionable cloaks of virtue that a certain segment of the population requires at this point in the 21st century. How do you sell a product today? Give it an eco-friendly name and call it “green.” While the term “organic” is regulated by the federal government, anybody can use the word “green” with its loaded implications anywhere.
Green bread, green jam; green eggs, green ham: How “green” is our food supply?
According to the Economic Research Service of the USDA, the number of acres of certified organic farmland in the United States doubled from one million in 1990 to two million in 2002 and doubled again to four million in 2005. That figures includes 1.7 million acres of cropland and 2.3 million in rangeland and pasture. Still, that certified organic acreage represents only 0.5 percent of all U.S. cropland and 0.5 percent of U.S. pasture and range. That’s not very much. That’s actually itty-bitty.
California is the leading state for certified organic farmland, at more than 220,000 acres involving (in 2005) 1,916 certified organic operations. How many of those operations are wine producers and how many of those acres are vineyards?
It’s more difficult than you would imagine to assess the number of producers in California that adhere to sustainable, organic or biodynamic practices. Some wineries don’t mention organic practices on their labels for fear of being pegged as hippie wines for the Birkenstock-wearing crowd. Others tout their philosophical affiliations with bold logos and graphic devices, clearly willing to tap into a growing interest among wine consumers. I don’t mean that such producers are cynically exploiting popular tastes; going organic and at the least maintaining ecological balance and health in the vineyards is hard work and requires dedication and zeal.
In January 2006 greenLAgirl provided an annotated list of 25 wineries in California that practice sustainable, organic or biodynamic methods. In December 2007, cawinemall.com listed 67 wineries that do not use pesticides in their vineyards or add sulfites to their wines, a sort of minimal standard for “greenness.” Townhallcoalition.org offers 30 organic and biodynamic wineries in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino countries.
None of which adds up to a revolution, though market forces are at work to convince us that it does. Take for example the “Fleming’s 100″ list of wines for 2008/2009 at the national chain Flemings Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar. Corporate wine manager Marian Jansen op de Haar chooses 70 of the wines on this list with local restaurant managers allowed to select the other 30 wines. The recently released list offers more than 70 wines that are “green” in some fashion, whether that means sustainable, organic or biodynamic. Jansen op de Haar calls these 70 products “carefully handcrafted and environmentally responsible wines” and says “I also believe the fruit for these wines to be purer in taste.” Well, the jury is out on that last statement, but what I really wonder is if the customers at Fleming’s — lapping up red meat on expense accounts in a dynamic, clubby and testosterone-laden atmosphere — demanded a roster of wines so heavily dominated by “green” wines: “Hey, Bob, let’s order one of those green wines!” The press release doesn’t tell us. To see the full list of “Fleming’s 100,” click here.
Another recent manifestation of the imagery and marketing of “green” wine is “The Consumer’s Green Wine Shopping List” (little trademark sign) issued by the “International Green Wine Competition,” held on May 5 in Santa Rosa. Fifteen judges tasted 271 entries from six states and 11 foreign countries, awarding 15 gold medals, 58 silver and 80 bronze. The categories were Certified Biodynamically Grown, Certified Organic, Transitional & Third Party Certified, and Natural (International Imports Only). For a list of winners, click here.
The “International Green Wine Competition” was produced by Wine Competition Management LLC, a new company that has been busy this year, already having produced the “National Women’s Wine Competition” (little trademark sign) on March 16-18 and gearing up for the “First Annual U.S. Professional Wine Buyers Competition” (little trademark sign) October 13-14. (“Why spend thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours trying to get face time with America’s top professional wine buyers? Enter your wines into the U.S. Professional Wine Buyers Competition and the Importer/Distributor Search Tasting.” Regular fee for entries is $85, but there’s an Early Bird Special through July 15 of $65.)
See what I’m sayin’? “Greenness,” in the good old American way, is being managed, codified and commodified. As minute as the certified organic segment is in farming generally and wine-producing specifically, it has already become entrenched in, or perhaps “swallowed by” is the correct term, the American Marketing-Advertising Complex (AMAC), a monolith of unimaginable riches and unfathomable proportions.
I’m in favor of sustainable and organic practices available in the choices we make both in personal daily life and as a country. But rather than emphasizing “green” products and playing on our sense of shame and righteousness, wouldn’t it be better if all those advertising and marketing dollars went instead to finding and funding alternative fuel and energy sources, for raising awareness of the necessity for conservation and public transportation and re-imagining the culture of cities, for changing the way we see ourselves in relationship to what’s left of the natural world?