Random Ramblings of a Weary Winemaker: 10 Things I Hate About O

by Peter Wellington
Wine.Woot guest blogger emeritus Peter Wellington comes down from the mountain bearing more of his winemaking wisdom!

Let me start by saying I don't really hate organic. I just have some major quarrels with its current manifestation in our culture. The title of this blog is more the result of my obsession with perverting cultural references. Lest I alienate a large number of you, and instigate a bunch of hate mail, I'll start with some background on the environmental and organic movements...

The first generation synthetic pesticides (primarily insecticides) were developed in the 1940's and 50's, at a time when we were making the transition to dial phones, automatic transmissions and transistor radios (just to put the concurrent level of technological sophistication into perspective). These chemicals were cheap and easy to produce, highly effective and much less toxic to humans than the 'natural” insecticides, like nicotine and arsenic, that they replaced. Broad spectrum effectiveness and slow breakdown were considered to be positive pesticide attributes; for example, DDT was still lethal to mosquitoes six months after application and is responsible for saving 10's of millions from death by malaria.

Widespread use of synthetic pesticides was just one aspect of a sea change in American agriculture that took place mid-20th century. Mechanization multiplied and the farm population dropped precipitously. Corporate agribusiness utilizing large scale monoculture, excessive plowing with tractors, chemical fertilizers and pesticides replaced complex, labor intensive family farms. It didn't take long before serious problems with the new system became evident: loss of soil fertility, accelerated soil erosion, water pollution and repercussions on wildlife and human health. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, published in 1962, is widely credited as giving birth to the environmental movement. Environmentalism and the organic movement grew in no small part out of backlash against the problems created by “modern” agriculture.

A little personal background fits into the time frame at this point. My interest in environmental issues grew dramatically around 1970, when I helped organize campus activities for the first Earth Day and became a vegetarian (38 years and counting). My personal concerns also dictated my educational path. After initially majoring in nutrition, I got my B.S. at UC Berkeley in Biology of Natural Resources, with emphasis in Soil Science and Plant Nutrition. My coursework included geological morphology, soil chemistry, genetics, microbiology, plant biochem, pesticide toxicity and toxicology, plant pathology, soil conservation among many others. More than any specific vocational goal, I had a desire to understand how the natural world works. One of my favorite sayings is, “Earth's ecosystem is more complex than man thinks because it is more complex than man can think” (or something along those lines, attributed to Bucky Fuller).

My understanding of organic principles is that there are two main goals, safe healthy food and a healthy environment. Some pesticides, both natural and synthetic, have had significant negative impact on one or both. The issues with synthetic fertilizers are all about environmental impact, not food safety or nutritional value. The two main effects are depletion of soils when trace minerals and organic matter (humus) are not replaced and both surface and ground water pollution from over application (also possible with organic fertilizers). Organic farming's simple solution was to distrust anything synthetic and set up a system of regulations based on that belief. This brings me to a point where I can start listing the 10 things I hate about O.

1. It is based on a simplistic categorization of natural vs. synthetic that overrides consideration of whether something is the best practice for food safety and environmental health. It caters to mistrust of technology and scientific learning. Organic regulations are probably one of the few things in our society that didn't piss off Ted Kaczynski.

2. The regulations are proscriptive rather than prescriptive. Rather than a recipe of sound farming practices, we are given a list of prohibited substances. Building and maintaining healthy soils, waterways and air involves a lot more than just not using certain fertilizers or pesticides. IMHO, routine plowing is far more destructive than the use of manufactured fertilizers, yet is perfectly acceptable under organic regulations. Cultivation with diesel tractors is one of the largest causes of air pollution, water pollution, and soil loss in the world.

3. Complying with organic regulations can actually foster practices that are more destructive to the environment. One of the arguments against synthetic fertilizer is that petroleum is burned for energy used in its production. How much petroleum is burned when you haul organic compost from the next county and spread it with a diesel tractor?

The main cultural practice that prevents many vineyards from meeting organic standards is in-row weed control. Back in the 90's an “organic” friend encouraged me to look into some new equipment, a weed flamer that uses 100,000 BTU propane torches to heat weeds to permanent wilting temperature, killing the above ground parts but not the roots. I watched a demonstration and it seemed like a great idea until I thought about it for a while. The positive aspects were no “chemicals” and no soil disturbance. The negative was burning 10 gallons or more of fossil fuel per crop acre per year, not even counting tractor fuel to haul the equipment through the vineyard several times a year. A prominent biodynamic vineyard and winery uses weed flaming extensively; somehow this doesn't seem to fit with the concept of a self-contained farm. Other organic weed control methods include gas driven string trimmers (weed eaters), hand hoeing and various mechanical devices that use considerable amounts of tractor fuel and tend to beat up the soil and cause vine injuries. There's no free lunch.

When wearing my vineyard cap I probably agonize more about weed control than anything else. I will admit to using weed eaters. Our current model has a 4-stroke engine, so it burns a lot cleaner than the more common 2-stroke which uses oil-gas mix. We've also done hand hoeing at times, but I'm reluctant to ask vineyard workers to do that because it's extremely hard physical labor. If I were to change to a non-chemical method it would probably be mechanical – a french plow or rotary plow followed by hand hoeing clean-up. The big trade offs would be increased fossil fuel usage and soil damage that doesn't occur with the chemical weed control we currently use.

4. Current common organic practices are not the most sustainable practices. Sustainability is a three legged stool. We tend to think mainly in terms of environmental sustainability, but economic and social sustainability are also necessary. Organic addresses environmental sustainability only partially, banning synthetic substances (except fossil fuel), but not limiting use of fossil fuel inputs or destructive soil cultivation techniques. It certainly is economically sustainable as long as enough people are willing to pay a premium for products carrying an organic label. It is also more socially sustainable than “conventional” farming from the standpoint of community acceptance but less socially sustainable to the extent that it is more dependent on manual labor. A perpetual supply of a hungry labor force from third world countries is not something upon which we can or should rely.

5. There is a myth that organic tastes better. Fresh, local and ripened-on-the-plant taste better. Back in the day when the only organic producers were small farms, most organic produce tasted great. Organic produce that is factory farmed and/or shipped long distances doesn't taste so good. Our local Sonoma County “regular” milk from pasture grazed herds tastes great. I can't print the words I use to describe the taste of the supermarket organic milk we can buy that comes from a huge feedlot dairy hundreds of miles away. Whenever possible, eat local!

6. Another myth is that organic foods are healthier or more nutritious. The same arguments I applied to flavor pertain here. The deadly E. coli outbreak of 2007 involved both regular and organic spinach. I've had a running battle with my wife for years over buying pre-packaged greens. I've been known to put “real lettuce” on the shopping list. I've always washed the pre-packaged stuff and been asked why I did so; when the spinach disaster occurred I was finally able to say, “that's why”. Again: eat local!

7. Organic legitimizes biodynamic, or VDDD as someone here put it (MarkdaSpark, perhaps). Upon reading an article about a local winery “making the transition from organic to biodynamic” my wife asked why we're not going biodynamic. My reply was that I am respected as a rational, reasonably intelligent member of the community and I don't wish to change that. I'm not any more likely to time vineyard and winery operations based on a biodynamic calendar than I am to plan my daily life based on my horoscope.

Biodynamic is for the most part benign unless too much reliance on some of its claims lead you to neglect common sense. A tragic example of this was the loss of a beautiful old vineyard that was ravaged so completely by mildew that it had to be destroyed. Apparently the vineyard manager had put unwarranted faith in the claim that biodynamics would increase the vines' disease resistance.

8. Both consumer perceptions and legal definitions of what organic actually means are highly variable. I'm always somewhat wary of foreign produce whether it's marketed as organic or not. I know a vineyard manager (primarily of organic ranches) who went on a vineyard tour in France and always asked to see the vineyard sheds – full of chemicals whether the vignerons were “organic” or not. He asked one organic grower what he did for weeds and the straight faced answer was “le Roundup”.

A lot of people think organic means no pesticides. A friend of my wife's was visiting once and when I told her I had to get up early the next morning to sulfur dust she reacted as if I had said I was going to torture kittens. All was forgiven the next day when I explained that sulfur was what the organic growers used. The line between synthetic and “natural” pesticides gets blurrier all the time. Sulfur dust, originally mined from mineral deposits, now comes as a byproduct of petroleum refining but is still okay for organic. High tech fungicides based on plant extracts are also okay. In the meantime, “conventional” pesticides, like pharmaceuticals, are using ever more specific biological activities, often based on plants' natural defense mechanisms. Rather than diverging, organic and conventional viticulture are becoming more alike.

9. Organic carries an inference that anything not organically certified is contaminated or unhealthy. My wife once asked me if I ever worry that the Roundup I spray on weeds could end up in the wine. I explained to her that Roundup is thousands of times more toxic to plants than to people and it would kill the vines if it got into them. I'm more concerned about contamination from auto exhaust from Highway 12 (which, fortunately, is downwind from us most of the time).

The first generation of synthetic pesticides like DDT have all been replaced by pesticides with more specific biological modes of action, less bio-persistance and lower toxicity to non-target organisms. I'm not so naive as to claim that today's pesticides are completely benign, but when used properly they are safer than their predecessors by orders of magnitude. Today's farmers are more educated and more heavily regulated as well. Risk is a combination of toxicity and exposure, and both factors have been greatly reduced in recent years, yet an unwarranted hysteria about possible food contamination remains. You have an immensely higher risk of cancer from not eating fruits and vegetables than you do from eating conventionally grown produce.

10. Greenwashing. Andy Peay of Peay Vineyards wrote a thought provoking article that was published in the San Francisco Chronicle last November, questioning wineries' motives for going green. While some vineyards and wineries truly have their hearts into organics, I wonder about a lot of the others. One company that has for many years touted its rationale for organic as worker safety and environmental stewardship committed total land rape a few years ago. They bought an old vineyard, ripped it out, clear cut almost a mile of stream (Cal. Fish & Game fined them for that), and fumigated with one of the most toxic and environmentally damaging chemicals allowed in U.S. Agriculture (and being phased out by international accord). The cynic in me says they applied for organic certification the very next day – it's a three year wait, about as long as it takes to get a vineyard into production.

Twenty years ago a family member from another local vineyard and winery chastised me strongly for not cultivating (discing) our new vineyard blocks. I was mowing rather than plowing. Their vineyards always looked immaculate; I swear they would send a tractor down a row, churning the soil relentlessly just to kill the last little weed that had escaped the previous four or five passes of th disc. This same family operation is now lauded for their green accomplishments. They disc less, have put up multiple bird roosts and nesting boxes and are using softer chemicals. I'm pleased to see all this, but I can't help wonder how much of the change is based on PR and marketing value versus just doing the right thing. They do get a lot of mileage out of their greenness, but who am I to complain – I brag about our green practices all the time.

In December I went to a conference on wine industry sustainability put on by my old college (College of Natural Resources) in Berkeley. Talks ranged from the potential consequences of climate change (including some I hadn't considered), to energy practices and raw materials input. The most interesting presentation was made by a viticulturist for a long established, highly respected winery. He gave a very frank description of the conversion of some of their vineyards to certified organic status. The company does not want to be excluded from the growing number of restaurants that sell only wines made from certified organic grapes. They have carefully chosen some, but not all, of their vineyards for this process. Hillside vineyards were left out of the organic program due to concerns about erosion and worker safety. This company is quite forthright (at least in this academic setting) that it is doing some conversion to organic solely for marketing purposes. They are already very green and environmentally responsible and have instituted some cutting edge practices on that front. This conversion is costing them some money for new equipment, more labor including more tractor usage, and record keeping for organic compliance. It also may be a slight step backward for them in terms of environmental impact and sustainability.

The commercialization of organic has bothered me for years. Government organic standards have been lowered time and again in response to pressure from big agri-business concerns eager to cash in on the demand for organic products. They even have provisos for substituting “non-organic” supplies and ingredients when the cost of the organic corollary gets too high! Too many marketing strategies are based on what is not in products rather than what is in them. Does anyone really think organic tortilla chips are a healthy snack? I'm reminded that a few years ago, at the peak of the low carb fad, a winery came out with some brands like 1.6 Chardonnay and 1.9 Merlot, referring to the grams of carbohydrate per 5 ounce glass. They got a lot of press as “reduced carb” wines. Reduced from what? Those are both over 1% residual sugar! My immediate thought was, “Geez, my wines are all, like, 0.1 to 0.4 by their criteria; what a bleeping scam!” They were charging 10 bucks plus for crappy, semi-sweet wine, preying on ignorance and gullibility.

In summary, I don't want to give the impression that all current vineyard chemicals are benign or that the environmental and health hazards of agriculture have completely disappeared. Organic practitioners are not completely irrational, and many of them have true passion for what they do and great respect for the land. Most vineyardists have a more holistic approach than they did 10 or 20 years ago, using more sustainable techniques that foster biodiversity and healthier soils. Fortunately, grapes have very few pests in California, and most vineyards never need to use insecticides. Sulfur dust is the only thing many growers, organic and not, ever spray on the vines, and the health risk of substances other than alcohol in California wine is minute. I can't speak for imported wines, but as with anything else, always consider the source. If I ever try a Chinese wine I'm using a spit bucket;)