Not That Easy Being Green (Wine): Review of Two Books

Britt & Per Karlsson, Biodynamic, Organic and Natural Winemaking: Sustainable Viticulture and Viniculture. Floris Books, 2014.

John Kiger, A Vineyard Odyssey: The Organic Fight to Save Wine from the Ravages of Nature. Rowman & Littlefield, 2013.

It’s really not that easy being green if you are a winegrower or wine maker. For a long time green wines (organic, biodynamic, sustainable and so forth) were not a very dynamic category here in the U.S. You could find them, but they were tucked away in what I call the “green ghetto” neighborhood at the supermarket, close by de-alcoholized wines, half-bottles, and other sometimes slow-selling SKUs.

Some research actually suggested that consumers were not only unwilling to pay more for organic wines, as they often do with other organic products. They actually valued them less than other wines. So many people who made organic or biodynamic wines didn’t go out of their way to advertise the fact. Much different from Europe, where “bio” wines are a strong category.

This is changing and I expect to see green wine sales grow, albeit from its current small base. The dynamic is driven by both supply and demand. On the supply side, more and more wine grape growers and producers simply want to be green — they see it as the best way to do business, especially in the long run — and want to advertise that fact and develop the market category.

Jean-Guillaume Prats, chief of the wine group at LVMH, goes further. He told the Wine Vision 2014 audience that in considering vineyard investments, if you can’t grow the grapes organically, maybe you shouldn’t grow them at all! He’s obviously focused on the luxury wine segment, but the message resonates in other parts of the market.

On the demand side I see green wines as part of a bigger movement. A friend pointed out to me that consumers who shop at Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and other upscale supermarkets simply expect that the products they find there will be organic — and are turned off if they are not. They look for organic certification everywhere else in the store. Why should wine be any different?

So things are changing, although it may take a while for the build-up of small ripples and waves to come crashing to shore. I think this is a good time to rethink green wines and the two books reviewed in this column are excellent places to begin.

Green Wine Primer

Britt and Per Karlsson write about wine from their base in Sweden and this book, which first appeared in Swedish in 2012, is a welcome green wine primer. Its scope is broad, including organic, biodynamic, sustainable and natural viticulture and winemaking.  The Karlssons provide good depth and detail, covering the science, economics and regulatory politics of green wine today. Theory and practice, just what you need.

I was especially interested in the curious politics of EU organic wine regulations. Because of the desire to have one set of rules for everyone from Greece to Latvia, the compromise results can seem illogical. The limits on copper use, for example, seem driven by the need to accommodate Burgundy in a particularly bad year and so are out of balance for other parts of the EU. A regional approach would seem to make better sense here as in many other instances, but I think some of the Eurocrats are suspicious of regionalism, so illogical compromise rules.

Although there is more detail about European practices and regulations than New World activities, I found plenty to work with and the contrast of regimes helped me understand them all much better.

The book is clearly written and organized and lavishly illustrated with color photos that are both beautiful and informative. I learned something new in every chapter, but I was especially interested in the biodynamics section. The combination of thorough research and personal interviews with growers and winemakers made this material come alive for me.

Sometimes the smallest points are the most satisfying, so I was pleased to learn the origin of the numbers that are used to identify the biodynamic preparations. These preparations often raise eyebrows because they seem to represent the “voodoo” side of biodynamics — manure stuffed in cow horns, buried in the vineyard and then made into a tea to spray on the vines, for example. Why are they identified with numbers not names? Numerology?

No, it’s more about politics. The numbers (cow horn manure is Preparation 500) may have come about when the Nazis in Germany banned biodynamic agriculture, the Karlssons report. Proponents learned to speak in a numbers code to avoid detection.  Who would have guessed?

The Karlssons present all this information objectively and openly question some of the most extreme claims of green wine proponents, but I don’t think you write a book like this unless you think there is something in the concept itself. In this regard I think they reflect both the times, which as I noted before now seems to favor organic products, and their location (Scandinavia is a good market for green wines).

This is a fine book and worth your attention.

Green Isn’t Easy at All

It really isn’t easy being green — not easy at all — and as much as the Karlssons give a strong sense of this in their survey, there is really nothing like a report from the front lines of the battle. John Kiger and his wife Deb own and operate Kiger Family Vineyard in Sonoma Valley, which is not a region where nature cuts the green winegrower any slack. Just the opposite in fact. At times it seems like being natural is a battle against nature itself.

Kiger’s book makes a nice pairing with the Karlssons’ because it is at once so similar in topic and yet so different in approach. Kiger’s book is clearly personal, for example. The author presents a first person account of the triumphs, failures and struggles. The book has heroes (including the Kigers and their allies) and villains, too, chief among them is oidium or powdery mildew, which  is a threat to vineyards everywhere and perhaps especially in cool-climate Sonoma Valley.

Kiger becomes obsessed with powdery mildew, by his own account, and so we learn a great deal about it. This intense focus is very helpful because an organic wine farmer necessarily becomes obsessed with all the harmful fungi and harmful insets and so forth and is driven to find natural ways to combat them.

The book’s first chapter is titled “If I’d Only Known Then What I Know Now,” which tells you that it really hasn’t been easy being green, and the last chapter is called “Truce.” which might suggest that the Kigers have come to terms with nature’s many sides. But I think it is really that they have accepted that  each new year starts a new cycle of natural challenges like powdery mildew and that this struggle has value in itself in addition to the grapes and wine that are produced.

These two books make a nice pairing for your wine economics bookshelf. File them alongside Caro Feely’s books on her struggles with organic and then biodynamic winegrowing in France. Follow this link to read my review of Feely’s books. Cheers to everyone who struggles to be green — we know it’s not easy!

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Here’s the obvious music for this column and the lyrics sort of apply to the green wine case, don’t you think?

3 responses

  1. Thanks for focusing on the topic of “green” wines…I’ve written seven apps on this topic which readers may also be interested in. You can find links to them at http://www.winecountrygeographic.com. The apps list 500-600 wines made from certified vines in the U.S. It’s always nice to hear another wine grape grower’s story (the Sonoma one) – after talking to hundreds of organic growers, I’d say, for the sake of balance, some find it easy. Their skill grows over the years. There are many producers who certify their vineyards, use all estate fruit, but don’t bottle label the word “organic” on their labels.

    BTW, Whole Foods does a terrible job of showcasing the organically grown wines. They put a small number of the cheap, not so good wines in a section they call “EcoFriendly” (along with chemically grown wines that put the word sustainable on the bottle somewhere, typically). All of the other wines are shelved along with the conventional ones. I have also failed to find knowledgeable sales people in supermarkets or wine stores who actually know what’s organically grown. A number of producers represent themselves as organic without being certified (and some without being organic). The bottle labeled ones are all certified.

    Confusion reigns – that’s why I created the apps. Hopefully people will find them useful. They are available for Apple and Android and each costs $9.99. Touring apps are also available.

  2. Many thanks for this beautiful review of our book!

    I mention it on our site here:
    http://www.bkwine.com/news/wine-economist-organic-wine-book-fine-book-worth-attention/

    In that comment I also add some comments regarding three of the issues you bring up about being “green”:

    – Is it more popular in “Europe”? Well it very much depends on where in Europe you are.
    – Is it driven by supply or demand? A frequently debated issue, where what I see mainly points to a supply-driven development.
    – The poor state of organic wine in the US. Perhaps the rules need to change?

  3. Hi Mike,
    Thanks so much for reviewing A Vineyard Odyssey—I’m so glad you found it worth recommending!
    Best,
    Susan

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