|Does organic wine conjure images of unpalatable swill made by hippies in a bathtub somewhere in California? If so, you are not alone. Popular opinion continues to define organics as a marginal lifestyle choice, even as organic foods and consumer products are becoming one of the fastest-growing markets in the U.S. According to the Organic Trade Association, organic wine sales increased 20 percent in 2003, with a projected 16.5 percent increase every year through 2008. Chain health-food stores like Whole Foods have helped; as have the availability of restaurants offering a cool alternative to both traditional fine dining and grungy vegan joints––upscale, well-designed, destination restaurants that feature organic foods, cocktails, and wines. In 2005, California Certified Organic Farmers reported more than 8,000 of California’s 51,300 wine acres were certified organic––which doesn’t account for the many wineries that make wine from organic and biodynamically grown grapes without bothering with certification.
The Different Designations
We asked Scott Pactor, owner of Appellation, a New York wine store specializing in wines made with organically and biodynamically-grown grapes, to help us make sense of the designations: certified organic, practicing organic, and biodynamic. Generally speaking, “organic” means wine made with grapes that were grown without the use of chemicals of any kind. However, winemakers can communicate this in a variety of ways. Some market themselves as practicing organic, or sustainable (meaning the agriculture they practice does not diminish natural resources). This term encompasses a range of commitment, from simply making wine with organic grapes to organic cellaring practices.
To be “certified organic” means that a winery is sanctioned by a certifying agency. In California, this can take up to three years, and a few thousand dollars. It also requires abiding with sulfite level laws. Sulfites are a naturally existing preservative in wine, but adding more during fermentation will preserve the wine for a longer time. In 1990, the Organic Foods Production Act permitted use of less than 20 parts per million of sulfites––conventionally made wines generally contain 300 parts per million.
And then there’s “biodynamic.” Pactor explains it this way: “To be biodynamic, you’re taking organic a leap further. You’re farming organically, and in addition, you’re following the rhythms of the earth… You learn to understand the rhythm of your vineyard.” French winemaker Nicolas Joly of La Coulée de Serrant and founder of the modern biodynamic wine movement approves Pactor’s definition. Still, confusion is prevalent even among experts; when asked why everyone has a different idea of what makes a wine organic or biodynamic, Pactor says, “That’s because everyone farms differently.”
The average American wine consumer sticks to the basics: Chardonnay, Cabernet, Merlot, and Pinot Noir. So if most casual wine enthusiasts don’t understand the subtleties of traditional wine designations like Burgundy or Bordeaux, is adding organic, practicing organic, sustainable, and biodynamic just compiling the confusion?
Many are taking on the challenge, and not just specialized retailers like Pactor or the handful of restaurants with organic/biodynamic wine lists. Traditional retailers, like Astor Wines and Spirits, one of New York City’s largest wine stores has started special sections for their organic and biodynamic wines. Astor built its new store, opened earlier this year, with an expanded organic section and a “cool room” that is used, in part, for proper storage of delicate biodynamic wines. And it is not just larger cities that have jumped on the bandwagon. Whole Foods has stores in 31 states, as well as the UK and Canada, with 78 more stores in development as of May 2006. While wine selection varies by location, they do push organic ––Whole Foods is the exclusive distributor of the estate- grown Argentinean brand Vida Organica.
None of this, however, answers the question of taste. We turned to the beverage managers at two of New York’s most well- known (and busy) organic, vegetarian spots, Candle 79 and Counter, to see if organic wine does indeed taste better.
New York, NY
Opened in 2003 by Joy Pierson and Bart Potenza, Candle 79 serves stylish vegan fare with the city’s premier selection of vegan, certified organic, and biodynamic wines. Manager Francesca MacAaron says, “We wanted to explode the myth that vegan food is just rice and beans, it can be gourmet, and beautiful to look at, as well as healthy for your body.” When it comes to wine, this is new pairing territory. MacAaron suggests several pairings that demonstrate chef’s Angel Ramos’ and Jorge Pineda’s substantial chops, and her own knowledge of both sustainable and traditional viniculture:
Dish: Live Young Coconut Pad Thai
Wine: Badger Mountain, Johannisberg Riesling, 2005, from Columbia Valley, Washington
“The vegetables in the Pad Thai are all raw to maintain the nutrients,” says MacAaron. The flavor is maintained as well: Young coconut is a successful replacement for noodles. The Riesling is off-dry – with some added Muscat – but no added sulfites. The touch of sweetness compliments the Pad Thai’s unexpected heat, and the clean mineral finish readies the palate for the next bite.
Dish: Potato Gnocchi with Cashew Cream Sauce
Wine: Lolonis Fumé Blanc, 2004 from Mendocino, California
"Lolonis,” says MacAaron, “uses ladybugs for pest control.” If that wasn’t impressive enough, this Fumé Blanc comes from 40-year-old vines that exhibit a great expression of varietal character, with fresh aromas of citrus fruit and grass. Full-bodied, it stands up to the basil and garlic of the cashew cream sauce, yet is delicate enough to reveal the flavor of the potato.
Dish: Seitan Picatta with Creamed Spinach and Roasted New Potatoes
Wine: Robert Sinskey Aries Pinot Noir, 2004 from Napa, California
Seitan is a wheat gluten meat substitute that absorbs marinades well––Seitan Picatta is one of Candle 79’s signature dishes. As with veal picatta, Chardonnay is the usual choice here, but MacAaron suggests “a lighter-bodied red like the Domaine Des Cèdres, Biodynamic Côtes Du Rhone, or the Aries Pinot Noir.”
New York, NY
Counter has been the downtown vegetarian oasis since it opened three years ago––it’s a sleek Wine Spectator Award-winning wine bar/restaurant. Co-owners Deborah Gavito and Donna Binder have created an eclectic list, “We have no wine training, so it has to do with our own taste,” says Gavito. Choosing wines that are both certified and practicing organic. Gavito, a vegan herself, has not chosen only vegan wines. In fact, she says, “We bend over backwards to please a carnivore rather than a vegetarian,” and estimates that 50 percent of Counter’s guests are meat-eaters. Similarly eclectic is Counter’s French Mediterranean Vegetarian cuisine, which includes organic cheeses, developed by chef Shay Gerard Ohana:
Dish: Panisse (Chickpea Fries) with Aioli
Wine: Vouvray Brut Domaine Champalou, Loire Valley, France, NV, Sustainable
“The aioli pairs well with champagne or sparkling wines,” says Gavito, and the salt in the panisse needs the crisp green apple flavors of the Vouvray.”
Dish: Roma Tomatoes, Hearts of Palm, Avocado with Herbal Lemon Vinaigrette
Wine: Tokaj Simcic Friuli, Vipolze, Slovenia, 2001, Sustainable
Here Gavito suggests a medium to full-bodied white; “The creaminess of the avocado and hearts of palm need a wine that is velvety and rich with accents of honey, butterscotch and caramel.”
Dish: Spinach and Feta Cheese Cigars
Wine: Chablis Premier Cru Domaine Oudin, Burgundy, France, 2001, Organic
The dry, acidic minerality of the Chablis is a such a natural choice here, that Gavito is adamant, “Feta cheese goes so well with a bone dry white wine.”
Dish: Cauliflower Risotto with Crispy Sage Polenta, Translucent Shitake and Baby Arugula Emulsion
Wine: Cerasuolo di Vittoria COS, Sicily, Italy, 2002, Organic
Gavito notes that this dish pairs well with both whites and reds. “The Cerasuolo’s natural acidity,” she adds, “goes well with the fried crispy sage polenta and compliments the cauliflower.”