First published in Issue 42 2013
Abhorring abuses under conventional and organic regimes, Miles Edlmann insists that there is more common ground between the two forms of viticulture than most people realize. But he also highlights the absurdities, fallacies, and inconsistencies surrounding “organic” grapes and, now, wine, blaming lazy consumers, as well as the certifying organizations and producers who give them their “ladybug fix”
Consider the following situation: Product A is not really very harmful at all. An orally given dose of 5,000mg per kg of body weight (parts per million [ppm]) causes no fatalities in rats. Furthermore, it can be fed to them for three months as a full 2 percent of all their ingested food without any detectable ill effects on their health. Product B will kill 50 percent of rats in the study with a single dose of 300 ppm. Toxic effects have been reported in humans at levels as low as 11 ppm.
Product A carries no hazard warning symbols on the packaging; product B does-all kinds of scary signs.
If product A is applied to the ground in your vineyard less than three years before the harvest, your crop cannot be considered organic. Product B can be sprayed directly on to the bunches of grapes just seven days before picking them, and it will still be certified organic fruit.
Welcome to the completely ridiculous world of organic viticulture. This is a matter of particular pertinence since, as of the 2012 harvest (wines you can currently expect to be finding their way on to shelves), the European Community has introduced new legislation regarding what may now be called "organic wine," rather than just "wine made from organic grapes," as it used to be. Did you understand the difference? Nor did I, and I've made plenty of the stuff. What follows is an attempt to explain what all this "organic" nonsense actually means.
A meaningless term
We should start by trying to make sense of the term, but not even a brace of dictionaries is of much help to us here:
1. noting or pertaining to a class of chemical compounds that formerly comprised only those
existing in or derived from plants or animals, but that now includes all other compounds of carbon.
2. characteristic of, pertaining to, or derived from living organisms. (dictionary.reference.com)
3. of, relating to, yielding, or involving the use of food produced with the use of feed or fertilizer of plant or animal origin without employment of chemically formulated fertilizers, growth stimulants, antibiotics, or pesticides. (merriam-webster.com)
The term "organic" is itself quite meaningless in an agricultural context. There is no carbon in copper sulfate (product B) but plenty in glyphosate-based weedkiller (product A). Neither is derived from living organisms, yet both are chemical pesticides. The European term "biological" is obviously no more enlightening. Glyphosate is readily broken down by soil microbes into nothing more dangerous than carbon dioxide and can have a half-life after application of as little as two days. Furthermore, it is extremely immobile in the soil and therefore unlikely to be leached into groundwater. It does not bio-accumulate in animals. That's why no harm came to the well-fed rats.
Copper is a heavy metal that has the potential to bio-magnify in both plants and animals. (That must be what the cute ladybug on the back of the bottle means, then.) It can damage the liver, the kidneys, and the nervous and reproductive systems of mammals. Why then should copper sulfate, the main component of Bordeaux mixture, be permitted in organic agriculture? The answer is simple: It is the closest thing to a naturally occurring-that is, mineral-fungicide that can be employed on a practical scale in viticulture. But fugu toxin occurs naturally, as does the bubonic plague, and you wouldn't want to splash either of them into your coq au vin. "Naturally occurring" is clearly not synonymous with "healthy." Incidentally, although copper sulfate does indeed occur naturally on rare occasions, in its commercial formulation it is synthesized in industrial laboratories. Much like the glyphosate then, really, but far more dangerous.
Copper sulfate does not readily degrade under normal environmental conditions, though it is highly soluble in water. This makes run-off particularly dangerous, since a concentration of less than 1mg per liter will kill 50 percent of exposed fish within 48 hours. Conversely, copper sulfate is relatively immobile when it enters the soil, binding tightly with both organic matter and clay particles. Therefore, total copper concentration in soils can readily accumulate, especially in older vineyards or those with a high susceptibility to fungal diseases, sometimes attaining quite startling levels.
Vines require much less than 5 ppm of copper for their nutritional needs, though some soils might, rarely, contain up to around 50 ppm occurring naturally. Astoundingly, however, the French have detected copper levels of over 1,000 ppm (or 0.1 percent) in agricultural soils; this is ten times the maximum permitted level in US farming. Needless to say, these concentrations are toxic to soil microorganisms, and death of the vines themselves can also result. This is somewhat ironic when we remember that "organic" was previously defined as "pertaining to, or derived from, living organisms." By comparison, industrial copper mines typically process ores containing less than 0.4 percent copper.
The fact of the matter is that there is no realistic alternative to copper sulfate for the viticultural hippies. If left unchecked, downy mildew will happily wipe out an entire crop. No grapes means nothing for the (often privately owned) organic watchdogs to certify, which means no income for them. Or for the wine grower. This symbiotic (dare I suggest that this word is not cozy enough?) relationship will be examined in more detail later.
Grass not always greener
As we have just seen, the real issue here is that organic practices are often far more damaging to the environment than the chemical alternatives, and the use of herbicides is another very good example. Organic producers often make much of cover-cropping in their vineyards, and I am thoroughly in favor. Long before it became a legal obligation I was one of the fiercest advocates of cover-cropping in the Douro. I proved the vast benefits of mid-row swards on reducing soil erosion, and I pioneered the introduction of cover-cropping over large areas of conventional vineyard for controlling soil-water status, as well as vine vigor and nutrition, not to mention massively increasing biodiversity. I filled entire vineyards with dozens of bees per square meter (they love clover) while colonies were collapsing all over the world. And I still used chemical pesticides.
The soil directly under the rows of vines is a different situation, however. Any viticulturist will tell you that this zone should be kept bare as a means of controlling fungal diseases and reducing the risk of frost damage. This brings us to a tricky decision. Should we choose conventional methods of weed control, a residual herbicide would be applied to the thin strip of ground directly beneath the plants. One application per year ought to be adequate.
Alternatively, organically, we must opt for physical methods of weed control. This inevitably involves the use of a mechanical under-vine hoe-a single-bladed plow that weaves in and out of the vines, turning over a narrow band of soil. The problem is, of course, that this has no residual effect and therefore needs to be repeated two or three times during the course of the growing season, leading to much greater soil compaction. Furthermore, since the tractor operating this machinery must travel much, much more slowly than one spraying herbicide, the fuel bill is realistically more like five times that of the chemical alternative. So much for carbon footprints, or even the Soil Association's claim that "organic food is produced using environmentally and animal friendly farming methods."
Against black and white
It is probably fair to say that the most ecologically and economically sustainable approach to pest control is enshrined in the sensible principles of Integrated Pest Management. Organic agriculture is perfectly in tune with almost all of the IPM philosophy, with the occasional exception of "responsible use of pesticides." The conventional viticulturist and the lentil eater see eye to eye on a great many things: sulfur, for instance, is the backbone of both organic and non-organic powdery-mildew control. Both gentlemen are equally familiar with monitoring chromotropic traps, and they are both aware of the different cultural practices used to improve canopy aeration. This article simply sets out to show that the black-and-white thinking of the average consumer (organic equals good, conventional equals bad) fails to grasp that both philosophies share three quarters of a pleasantly pale gray range that has a slightly darker hue at both ends.
The darker end of the conventional scale is clearly chemical misuse. Over-application of almost any chemical can be detrimental, though we would do well to remember that the label on a pesticide package is actually a legal document; exceeding the stipulated dose is not permitted, and neither is reducing it. Interestingly, some under-applications (usually to save money) may be greater environmental threats than some over-applications, since they run the risk of creating resistance in the targeted pest; if we do not use quite enough pesticide to eliminate the problem completely, then we are unnaturally selecting the small proportion of individuals that did not succumb to the recommended dose and that could pass on those resistant genes to their next generation. This rule applies, of course, to both organic and non-organic products that, in many viticultural enterprises, largely overlap. Thankfully, both copper sulfate and sulfur have served us well for hundreds of years without any such problems, which is the only reason that organic viticulture was ever able to exist.
There are, however, two further points to consider. First, IPM stipulates how many times per season certain pesticides may be used, specifically in order to reduce the risk of resistances developing. Second, it also actively encourages alternation between different chemical groups for the very same reason (something that is far easier to do if you have more chemicals in your arsenal than just copper and sulfur). Don't forget that annual EU subsidies depend upon compliance, so for most viticulturists this practice is an economic necessity if nothing more.
That still does not prohibit idiotic and inappropriate use of herbicides, so one of the first things I did as a viticulturist was to forbid application of weed-killers to the farm tracks. Where the wheels of vehicles pass, the soil is already too compacted for anything green to spring up. Furthermore, any grasses growing in the middle are mown to the ground clearance of a Land Rover every time you drive past, but they nevertheless form a fantastic natural water-break, cutting down on erosion and maintaining the condition of the tracks. This aspect, coupled with the recommended use of cover-cropping in the vineyards, helps us even further, again providing a refuge for the predatory insects that keep irritants such as leafhoppers in check.
If this isn't sufficient, we can apply a very specific insecticide to the vines that kills only the particular bug in question but not bees or other resident beneficial insects. Science can do all of this, and even more accurately, too. Do you want to take out the adult leafhoppers or their instars? It's up to you if you get the timing right. That's the beauty of IPM. But if caterpillars are causing the problem, don't we need a different insecticide that won't upset the lacewings or ladybugs? It already exists, of course, but it is obviously not approved for organic viticulture because it was created by scientists.
Hiding organic teething troubles
It's time to stop trying to reinvent the wheel: Nature created the logs on which the boulders of Stonehenge were rolled into place, but a lorry would do a better job today. Science can improve on nature, and specifically engineered pesticides prove just that-as clearly as the fact that airplanes travel faster than swifts and carry more passengers. Evolution is not just a natural process but also a human one, and as a result most things that we do today we do the best possible way within certain unavoidable constraints. Growing grapes has evolved over thousands of years of natural and socioeconomic pressures. But the formally regulated concept of growing grapes organically is still far too new to have benefited from this experience, and by stubborn default it has chosen to remain nothing more than an already redundant mouthpiece for the indiscriminate but well-intentioned reaction to Rachel Carson's invaluable alarm call from over 50 years ago. It's not wrong; it is just in its evolutionary and intellectual infancy, and it is misleadingly hiding its narrow-minded teething troubles from the consumer.
While vaguely on the subject of different philosophical approaches to viticulture, a very brief mention of biodynamics is merited, if only to justify why it will not be mentioned again. Anybody who thinks that biodynamic viticulture is just another point on the far end of the scale that runs from intensive through conventional to organic is grotesquely mistaken. The only similarity is that while organic viticulture sometimes, occasionally, turns a blind eye to scientific logic, biodynamic viticulturists have long since torn out both scientific eyeballs and buried them deep in a cow's horn full of Preparation 500. If Dr Steiner never cared to touch a drop of alcohol, then how exactly is he qualified to tell us how to go about growing good wine grapes? Oddly, however, he was a strong advocate of copper pots (albeit of very specific dimensions), but now we're starting to go around in circles. His circles, I believe, should always be described (dynamized?) in clockwise and counterclockwise directions, alternating every five seconds or so, for exactly one hour. And that, curiously, was the scientific bit.
The elephant in the vineyard
We have so far tiptoed around a pretty big elephant in the vineyard. This is understandable, however, since the elephant is always very well camouflaged. Sometimes it only comes out by moonlight, on those nights when yet another dose of Bordeaux mixture or sulfur dust and bentonite just isn't going to get rid of the mildew. These are the times when the organic viticulturist needs just a slightly bigger weapon in his arsenal or he will be staring at financial ruin.
It's time to drop the organic bomb. Do you know how you could, at least in theory, use non-organically approved chemicals in an organically certified vineyard? Quite simple: Just don't tell the certifying organization. When the producers have to submit their field log to the certifiers at the end of the agricultural year, along with copies of their pesticide bills, they could simply omit that to which they don't want to admit. End of story.
Or what if you, as a producer, need to meet an order of so many thousand bottles of wine made from organically grown grapes (or now, organic wine), but you don't have enough organically grown grapes to make that much organic wine? Again, simple: You could just use other, less organic grapes, but register them as if they came from the certified vineyard. Incidentally, one would expect organic vineyards to be far more susceptible to annual climatic variations than conventional vineyards, but it is quite remarkable how stable their declared production tends to be, year after year. Nor, of course, would we really want to admit that the consumer is subsidizing a more expensive method of production that results in lower yields and is, therefore, a far less efficient use of our limited land resources, all in exchange for no apparent benefits.
What is the point here? Basically, that the whole system relies on honesty between two parties both supremely interested in not acknowledging any dishonesty. Therefore, judging by how little scandal we hear of, organic producers must clearly be one of the most honest groups of people on the planet.
At this juncture, I would actually defend the "dishonest" producer to some degree. As anyone who has ever been near a winery knows, the (lack of) integrity in the information on the back label of a wine bottle is the worst-kept secret in the wine world. I will explain why with a relatively innocent example. European law states that a varietal wine must contain at least 85 percent of that variety. Now, imagine that I am a grape grower. First, my block of Merlot will inevitably contain a small proportion of vines that are of a different variety, as supplied erroneously by the nursery. Should the nursery have sourced its canes from a similarly impure field election, then this proportion could actually increase, since the use of a single vine of the wrong variety could provide scion material for dozens of new rootlings. Don't forget that the canes are collected in the winter, when the vines have neither leaves nor bunches to assist with their identification. So far, it's no one's fault.
Next, I, the grape grower, finish picking my Merlot with just 1.5 ton of fruit going into the last load. But my transport vehicle carries nearly 10 ton, and if I am to avoid mixing varieties in a single load, then I must send off a virtually empty trailer to the winery that is buying my fruit. This, in turn, means that the whole harvest will have to stop, because I have nowhere to put any more fruit, given that the previous load left just a few minutes earlier and has not yet returned to the vineyard. So, irrespective of the cost of idle pickers and logistical nightmares, just my transportation costs would be nearly seven times higher than they would for a full load. What do I do then? Easy decision: I cover my 1.5 tons of Merlot lying in the bottom of the truck with fruit from the next block-in this case, Cabernet-and I deliver a load that is 85 percent Cabernet but must obviously be declared to the winery as 100 percent pure, since by now it is too late to separate the grapes. The winery can then legitimately blend in 15 percent of other, undeclared varieties (assuming that they are telling the truth on the label). But even so, now there is actually only just over 70 percent Cabernet in the "varietal" wine.
But really I have no sympathy for those who buy wine for the label rather than the taste of what is in the bottle. They get what they deserve. I would much rather drink a decent blend dishonestly claiming to come from a "single vineyard" than a mediocre wine that actually does. If the winemaker thinks that the blend is better, then what does the single vineyard have to crow about anyway? I just wouldn't expect to pay more than the wine is worth. Should this rationale apply to "organic" wines? Absolutely, I believe. You should drink organic wine, but drink it because it is good and not because it says it's organic on the label. The entire wine industry would be more credible if consumers trusted their palates more and trusted marketing departments less.
A cozy regulatory framework
Returning to the relationship between organic producers and organic certifiers, I am reminded of a comparable situation. Years ago, when I was at boarding school, it was strictly forbidden to whistle in The Grange at any time. This was an unwritten rule instigated and enforced by the monitors, not by the staff. The reason for this was that our very decent housemaster made a point of whistling as he wandered around the warren of 19th-century corridors. So if you heard whistling, you knew who it was. If you were smoking in your study, you always had time to throw the butt out of the window and give the air a quick squirt of deodorant before the housemaster's head came round the door of your study. Quite simply, we had a mutually beneficial understanding with our housemaster; his boys didn't cause him any trouble, and vice versa, unless the infringements were glaring. Both parties go to bed happy and with their reputations untarnished.
The relationship between the organic producers and the organizations that certify them is not dissimilar. No control visit is unannounced, and no inspection is final. If you have failed to produce the correct paperwork or made some kind or error, you are asked to (re)submit it, corrected. It's much like a referendum on ratifying the Treaty of Lisbon; if you come up with the "wrong" answer, you are asked to go away and think about it again until you get it right. The necessary paperwork is considerable, but it generally relies on the assumption that a check in the appropriate box proves that such a protocol was followed and not just that the right box was checked. I wouldn't dare to suggest that much of this work might involve a group of people sitting down in an office with different-colored pens for added
"authenticity," passing around sheaves of paper.
In Portugal, as it happens, only two organizations are able to certify organic grapes, and the producer who wishes to be certified will of course follow the path of less resistance. Thus, effectively these two outfits are competing against each other to make certification as uncomplicated as possible, in order to hang on to their clients. Here's an example. It is quite possible to reduce the conversion period of an olive grove to organic production from three years to nothing at all. How? Take the organic inspector to the aforementioned olive grove in the height of spring, when there is a spectacular, multicolored riot of wild flowers growing beneath the trees.
"When did you last use a chemical pesticide?"
"We never have." In this case, completely true.
"Oh, then you can request a shorter conversion period."
"What about those almond trees?"
"Well, we never do anything with them."
"Would you like your almonds to be organic too?"
"I don't see why not."
And the organic olives now sell at a premium. I must stress that there is no suggestion of anything in any way dishonest or misleading in this exchange, but you do have to think that it might have been rather easy for somebody less scrupulous to have done some significant wool-pulling.
Confusion worse confounded
The organic winery is perhaps an even more confused place than the organic vineyard. We used to be told that we could add sulfur dioxide to the wine only if it was produced by dissolving pure SO2 gas in water. You know, the stuff that occurs naturally in active volcanoes and is somehow siphoned off and compressed into heavy metal cylinders. Oh, and by the way, it also merits one of those skull symbols.
I believe that the recent legislation now permits us to add sulfur dioxide to the wine in the form of potassium metabisulfite, too, so I can only assume that it is probably something to do with the fact that the latter doesn't come with a skull on the packet. Please note that I am not criticizing here, just pointing out seemingly random inconsistencies. On the contrary, if you are ever offered a wine containing no sulfur dioxide at all, you should probably steer well clear of it. There is only so far you can go with a lack of hygiene, and a wine with no sulfites is nominally like a household with no soap.
While on things that you might not know could be added to the newly classified "organic wine," I take pleasure in drawing your attention to the fact that our poisonous old friend copper sulfate is on that list-but only until the end of July 2015. I wonder why they want to get rid of it?
Did you know that it is also possible to produce organic Vintage Port? Here's the odd thing: Vintage must spend several months in wood before bottling, but the wood is not allowed to impart any noticeable flavor to the wine. This means that the barrels must be old and are, therefore, caked with heavy deposits of non-organic tartrates. Surprising then, isn't it, that the same producers are expected to sterilize the bins into which the organic grapes are picked?
You might wonder why organic grape and wine samples cannot be analyzed for the presence of unapproved chemicals. In fact, they can, but random testing is extremely uncommon for a number of reasons. First, the chemicals permitted in IPM (but not, let us assume, by organic rules) all have a set withholding period after application during which time the crop may not be harvested. This is to ensure that any residues in the final product exist at such minute trace levels as to be virtually nonexistent. Second, they may be metabolized or chemically altered during fermentation so as not to exist at all in the finished wine. And then there is the question of the analytical laboratories. The testing is highly specialized, and very few labs are capable of detecting many of the conceivable chemicals at such minuscule levels. Furthermore, a specific test needs to be run for each chemical class, so if you don't know exactly what you're looking for, the chance of finding a residue where it shouldn't be is exceedingly unlikely, given the dozens of chemical groups that are authorized for use in conventional viticulture. Needless to say, there are costs, too, which must be met by the organization that requested the analyses.
A quick ladybug fix
In the end, the root of the problem lies not with the producers or with the certification. The problem is created by the ill-informed consumer who unwittingly buys a one-dimensional marketing story. I hope to have redressed that balance with some inconvenient facts. Consider this article a gentle education. What it boils down to is this: The producers are in on the joke, and the certifying organizations are in on the joke, and they implicitly nudge
and wink at each other. Neither of them is really in it for the money. This is not a conventional rip-off. They are both just satisfying the demand created by a consumer base that is misinformed, or intellectually lazy, or just wants to feel good about what it is drinking and is looking for a quick ladybug fix. You get what you ask for, because it's a consumer driven marketplace.
Organic wine will almost certainly do you no harm (excessive quantities obviously excepted), but neither is it any better for you or for the planet than most non-organic wine. It won't taste any better or any worse probably, but then again you might not be able to trust the label anyway. If ecological sustainability is a concern, you might be better off asking if the wine you are drinking is produced from irrigated or from dry-grown grapes. When certain New World producers need to engineer salt-resistant rootstocks in order to go on producing grapes in soils that they have made too salty to sustain vines growing on their own roots-all as a result of their own irrigation mismanagement-then there is clearly a problem.
Even the sensible irrigation of vineyards, where salinization is not an issue, is still a massive waste of a precious and limited resource. More than five years ago, Jancis Robinson MW alerted us to this fact, quoting a figure of 140 liters of irrigation water being required to produce a liter of wine. Others, such as waterfootprint.org, claim that as much as 110 liters is required to produce a single glass, rising to an astonishing 195 liters in heavily irrigated countries. Responsible water use is probably the next big issue about to break in global viticulture, but you can be sure that the guilty players who are causing all the damage are going to keep very quiet about it for as long as possible. Perhaps tellingly, our organic guardians mostly have nothing to say on the matter while they go on protecting the planet.