Understanding Clean Wine Designations
By Kurt Jacobson
For those of us who go to great lengths to make sure our food is safe, why not do the same for wine? There are hundreds of wineries in the US ditching chemicals in favor of sustainable and eco-friendly practices. Consumers can easily buy organic, biodynamic, and SIP Certified wines in most bottle shops, but seldom know what these certifications really mean. Clear and concise explanations of these clean-wines are hard to come by. I wanted to know what “clean” wine was all about.
I recently traveled to California’s Central Coast and visited the Santa Barbara and Santa Maria wine regions. With Down To Earth Month just around the corner, my timing was right. This eighth offering created by Wine Institute has sustainably-focused wine events throughout April. The launch of Wine Country Table, a book highlighting sustainable California’s wineries and farmers shows encouraging results of treating the land and workers well.
I stopped at several wineries to get to the core of what it means to be sustainable and produce eco-safe wines. I wanted to hear from producers of eco-friendly wines why they bother with non-mainstream wine practices. What follows are three classifications of clean wine I was interested in understanding better.
SIP (Sustainability In Practice) Certified
Sustainable has a new and better designation. SIP certification strives to cover social responsibility, water conservation, clean water, safe pest management, energy efficiency, habitat/wildlife, and fair business practices. All wineries in this program elect to join and be audited. What started in 2008 in Central California is spreading throughout California and now Wisconsin. SIP strives to improve wine growing/production by concentrating on the 3 P’s (people, planet, and prosperity).
Starting out in Santa Barbara where almost 30 wine tasting rooms are scattered throughout the downtown area, I found Riverbench's tasting room. Riverbench has 135 planted-to-vine SIP Certified wines. SIP is a relatively new certification brought about when many wineries were claiming they were using sustainable practices. A clear understanding of what sustainable meant to any given winery was lacking. When SIP was formed, consumers now had a gold standard that is third-party verified. In 2008, a pilot program launched SIP certification for vineyards, and in 2016 SIP for wineries was started.
With older vines planted in 1973, Riverbench has been around longer than most Santa Maria wineries. Their vines draw character from the ancient riverbed they’re planted on. With a portfolio of excellent oaked and un-oaked chardonnay, intense pinot noir, and vibrant sparkling wine, Riverbench won me over.
I asked Laura Borass of Riverbench why being SIP certified was important and got this reply:
We chose the SIP program because as a family business, we want to leave the land here in the best shape possible for future generations. SIP has the added component of extending resources to support the community and the people who work here, so that was important as well. The families who own Riverbench have been here for generations and support the community in so many ways, so this was a key element for them. So not only are we able to conserve natural resources, impact the land the least amount possible, and minimize harmful pesticides and herbicides, but we are able to extend important support to our people as well.
At Presqu’ile Winery in the Santa Maria region, I toured the gravity-fed winemaking facility and heard their story. Presqu’ile is SIP Certified and posts this on their website:
In keeping with the Murphy family’s belief in stewardship and conservation, the Presqu’ile Vineyard is Sustainability in Practice (SIP) certified. Rigorous, non-negotiable and measured by an independent third-party auditor, SIP is widely considered the gold standard for sustainability certification. Unlike organic certification, which looks exclusively at chemical usage, SIP also audits social responsibility, water conservation, energy efficiency, clean water and much more.
I highly recommend visiting Presqu’ile for excellent wines and an incredible tasting room experience. To dig deeper into what it means to be SIP certified, visit https://www.sipcertified.org/about/ for more detailed information.
From Californiawines.com I share this explanation on organic winegrowing practices.
Wines made with organically grown grapes come from vineyards that follow the guidelines set by the National Organic Program (NOP).
1. no synthetic pesticides or nonorganic chemicals
2. only NOP-approved materials (some synthetic materials are allowed)
Additionally, wines labeled organic cannot have added sulfites to prolong shelf life; they must be certified to contain no more than 10 parts per million.
Organically grown and produced wines are easier to understand than SIP certified. It’s pretty much using organic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Some synthetic products are allowed, but not many. I stopped in Arroyo Grande to meet with Verdad’s owner Louisa Sawyer Lindquist and taste Verdad’s wines.
Although Verdad’s 14 acres of grapes are not certified organic, they are grown in the organic style. I run across this type of situation often where a grower of grapes or vegetables uses organic practices, but they don’t bother getting certified. It’s a royal pain in the rear to obtain organic certification and owning a winery isn’t usually a lucrative business.
Biodynamic farming treats the vineyard as a closed loop, employing organic practices and natural alternatives for eliminating waste and promoting a healthy ecosystem.
1. no synthetic pesticides or nonorganic chemicals
2. compost teas and natural preparations to enrich soil and promote microorganisms
3. insectaries to control pests
4. planting and pruning determined by the phases of the moon
Both my brother and I were impressed enough to buy a few bottles for the wine stash at home. Verdad’s albariño and the garnacha were two of the best wines we tasted during our trip.
Ampelos Winery is one of the first vineyards in the US to be certified organic, biodynamic, and SIP certified also. I met with Rebecca Work at her home overlooking their vineyard. During my interview with her, she said “We have a saying that we believe in – “you did not inherit the land from your parents it is on loan to you from your kids”. We live in the middle of the vineyard and did not want to have the chemicals sprayed right where we live, our dogs run through the vines, and our horses and chickens eat the grass.”
I totally agree with her, especially the part about dogs and horses who don’t get to pick the land they live on. Increasingly, wine drinkers are searching for clean wines, and Ampelos is about as clean as possible. After Rebecca shared with me a French study showing pesticides were getting into wine, I appreciated her wine even more.
With a little research, I found a link to a NY Times article about pesticides in wine from 2014. After reading the article, you’ll probably want to buy clean and green wines if you aren’t already. As if that weren’t enough I found this link to an article on gmwatch.org stating humans can taste pesticides in wine. In the article, it tells of 195 blind taste tests indicating participants could taste the chemicals.
No doubt there are studies to prove or disprove chemicals in wine, but why take a chance with pesticides and herbicides in your wine? You do have a choice to buy clean wine. Will you take a step forward for the environment and your health? The price point of clean wines is not that much more than the wine you are drinking now. Ask your local bottle shop their recommendations and make the switch.
Thanks to Wine Institute and DiscoverCaliforniaWines.com for permission to use definitions on Sustainable, Organic, and Biodynamic wine.