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The world of wine is daunting.
It’s a field in which more often than not people know what they like and what they don’t like (sweet vs. dry, robust vs. smooth) but don’t really have any clue what wine to order to obtain it.
Take any liquor store, wine bar or restaurant wine list and it’s easy to be lost within a single glimpse. Not only are there dozens of grapes, vineyards and varieties, but now add tag-lines like Fair Trade, organic, biodynamic, vegan and sustainable to the list and the whole thing gets a lot more complex.
Here’s a short break down to let you know what you’re looking for, even when you don’t have a clue.
By far the least prevalent of the categories, "Fair Trade" wines first came onto the market in 2007. Following trends in coffee, tea and produce, coalitions of vineyards emerged in countries like South Africa, Chile and Argentina. Regions previously known for low-quality wine production, growers and vintners in all three of these countries began to invest in wine production and focus on the uniqueness of their land and soil, or terroir.
"Prior to 20 years ago, everything in these countries was produced in bulk and so there wasn’t an emphasis on quality," says Nick Zinkgraf of Third Coast Wine. "Tradition exists in these countries and producers who’ve focused on quality for longer than 20 years, do have the reputation. In the last 20 years, the quality producers have lifted up the regional standards and made the world take notice."
"Fair Trade," rarely formally invoked on labels, refers to the working conditions of and wages paid to employees producing a specific product. Specifically, it guarantees vineyards and field employees a fair and "livable" wage for their product. However, while coffee and tea sectors have pushed this into the public eye, the range of values attributed to different grapes makes it virtually impossible to determine a typical fair price for wine.
"There are enough wines out there that are 'Fair Trade' without the label because the reputation of the farmer and owner is really on the line. There is a personal stake and ideology that 'I’m a grape grower and these grapes deserve certain attention.' Farmers very often employ solely unionized field workers because they want that reputation," says Zinkgraf.
Organic wines are changing the look of vineyards, literally. Whereas vineyards of the past commanded neat rows rid of all insects, rodents and weeds, organic vineyards are now replacing costly and damaging chemical sprays with environmental partnerships. To be considered an organic vineyard, growers must do without man-made insecticides, fertilizers and rodent poisons.
"The concept is very different from say coffee or vegetables. Whereas there is a specific price attributed to a head of lettuce or a pound of coffee, there is intrinsically a system of value ascribed to these grapes," says Zinkgraf.
But of course, the term organic gets broken down just a bit more in wines. Stamping "USDA Organic" on bottles implies a product made from organic grapes without sulfites. More commonly, you'll find bottles labeled "made from organic grapes," which refers to wines with organic grapes with less than 100 ppm sulfites added, much less than the typical 350 ppm.
"I think it’s a combination of people buying on principle and buying for taste. It’s obviously a matter of the brand, as it is with regular wines; some are terrible and some are fantastic," says James Bula of Good Harvest Market.
And whereas we are constantly warned to look for the "certified organic" label on produce, coffee and dairy, the label is not so telling for wine.
"A lot of wineries are into sustainable standards but are not certified," says Mark Nord, owner of Downer Wine and Spirits. "They believe in the organic practices but don’t necessarily want to deal with the overwhelming efforts to become certified."
"I think when the category of organic farming was first pursued in terms of wine, about 30 years ago, the impression that I have and the impression the industry took away from those vintners, was that they were far more interested in organic farming than wine quality," says Ben Christiansen, owner of Waterford Wines. "That impression is now three decades old. Most vintners I talk to, talk about organic but the stigma still exists from so many years ago."
While Edward Wallo, owner of Yorkville Organic Cellars, in California's Mendocino County, concedes the stigma, he believes it has much more to do with details.
Wallo's vineyard has been organic since 1986 and he believes organic farming is the only responsible method for wine production.
"I know people who have grown, say, tomatoes organically and they say you can taste the difference dramatically. But when you get into wine, you're talking fermentation, wine skills, blending, aging -- I don't believe anyone on earth could taste 20 wines and know which 10 are organic. It's really just a matter of protecting the land," says Wallo.
Wallo's vineyard runs down to the Navarro Valley and directly to the ocean. From his perspective, there is no option but to use organic methods.
But whereas organic foods and products generally command a higher price point, that’s not always the case with wine.
"Most people, who buy an organic wine, will not buy it at a higher price point. So most vintners who want to have their wine at a higher price point, won’t go for the organic label," says Christiansen.
A prime example, Trader Joe’s introduced a line of organic wines selling at just $4.99 a bottle. Similar in taste and price to their "Two Buck Chuck," Trader Joe’s bottles organic chardonnay and syrah.
SUSTAINABLE AND BIODYNAMIC
The word sustainability has been overused to the point that you can tag it on just about anything, give it any meaning you’d like, and consumers will associate the purchase with green ideology and environmental protection.
To clarify, sustainability really refers to the method of production. Sustainable growers are focused on maintaining the integrity of the soil, avoiding erosion, preventing water pollution and using naturally based chemicals and fertilizers.
Generally, growers consider not only the integrity of their grape but also maintaining an ecologically sound environment by providing areas for wildlife to flourish, allowing weeds and wildflowers to grow and using bio-diesel for tractors.
A more specific form of sustainability, biodynamic vineyards incorporate principles of biodynamic farming in both growing and post-harvest production. The system views the vineyard as a self-nourishing system and focuses on the interrelationship of the soil, plants and animals. The system commonly uses manures and composts in place of external fertilizers.
"I have done several public tastings with biodynamic wine and in general, almost everyone was able to identify the biodynamic wines. The response is very positive," says Christiansen.
Whereas organic certification varies from state to state and country to country, the Demeter Association administers a universal biodynamic certification around the world.
"Biodynamics and sustainable use, to most vintners, is a much more exciting, much more practical topic. Most of them are much more interested in biodynamics and what that’s doing to the farm; most people will attempt to get Demeter certification," says Christiansen.
Unlike "Fair Trade," organic or sustainable, the vegan stamp has nothing to do with the way the grapes are grown, the process by which they’re fermented or the tools used to do so.
Vegan refers to the process of "fining" the wine. An optional process, wines have typically been "fined" to remove unwanted tannins. Generally, a sticky protein is dropped into the wine, binds to the unwanted materials and drops to the bottom, where they can be removed.
Very often, the protein is made up of egg whites, milk casein, isinglass (made from the maw of a fish) or gelatin. In the past, vintners did not even tell purchasers about the process because, ultimately, the product is removed.
But increased culinary awareness and buyer education has turned many onto vegan wines. But it’s not without slight skepticism. As of now, no winery has applied for vegan certification and so in actuality, your comfort is a matter of trusting the vintner’s word.
OnMilwaukee.com staff writer Maureen Post grew up in Wauwatosa. A lover of international and urban culture, Maureen received a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
After living on the east side of Madison for several years, Maureen returned to Milwaukee in 2006.
After a brief stint of travel, Maureen joined OnMilwaukee.com as the city’s oldest intern and has been hooked ever since. Combining her three key infatuations, Milwaukee’s great music, incredible food and inspiring art (and yes, in that order), Maureen’s job just about fits her perfectly.
Residing in Bay View, Maureen vehemently believes the city can become fresh and new with a simple move across town.