Shifty Shades of Grey: Sustainability Simplified

Most of us are familiar with the word “organic” and have a fairly knowledgeable idea of what it means with respect to agriculture. However, in spite of the fact that the word “sustainable” is becoming an equally familiar term, fewer of us have a clear understanding of what that actually means in relation to agriculture generally, and to growing wine grapes specifically. The criteria for organic growing are black and white and organizations exist around the world to monitor and police these rules, but when it comes to sustainability, one must abandon the notion of black and white and instead adopt a philosophy made up of many shades of grey that takes into consideration the impact on our environment of various farming practices. Sustainability also includes an analysis of social goals as well as economic viability. Although this lack of a specific definition may seem frustrating at times, it is exactly this amorphous quality that is the essence of sustainable agriculture.

The very nature of the concept of sustainability means that the term will have different definitions at different times and in different places. For simplicity, the definition can be thought of as a balancing test: What at this given moment in time at this specific location would have the least negative impact on the environment and on our society, taking into consideration alternative solutions and factoring in the importance of maintaining a viable business.

Many wineries advertising sustainable farming publicize examples that include such things as beekeeping, free-range chickens and goats, and the erection of bird nesting boxes and raptor perches. All of these efforts are meant to strengthen and enhance the surrounding ecosystems with the desired result of creating a stronger and healthier environment in which to grow vines. Although these efforts can have a positive impact on the environment, the less glamorous balancing test is in fact the heart of sustainability. Take, for example, the issue of weeding. Organics eschew the use of chemical herbicides to control the growth of weeds between the rows of vines. An organic farmer might opt instead to mulch these areas. Our sustainable farmer, on the other hand, will take into consideration not only the effect of agrochemicals on the environment but also the effect of using diesel fuel during the mulching process. This farmer might reasonably decide that it is more environmentally sound overall (more sustainable) to use infrequent applications of a mild herbicide to control weeds than it is to use additional diesel fuel to take extra passes with a tractor.

Like organic growing, sustainable agriculture attempts to leave the land for the next generation in better condition than it was when it was inherited. But sustainability goes one step farther in its consideration of the environment’s long-term future by addressing issues that organic principles do not, such as global warming, water usage and greenhouse gases. There is currently a movement to create certification standards for sustainable practices. And while this will be a positive step toward giving recognition to those implementing these procedures, I can only imagine the enormity of the task of codifying the many shades of grey that make up sustainable agriculture. While I wait, I will continue to support my environment by seeking out and enjoying sustainably grown wines.


Want to support the environment with every sip? Why not start with one of these sustainable vineyards:


  • Bliss Family Vineyards, Mendocino, California
  • Michel-Schlumerger, Dry Creek Valley, California
  • Bodegas Carrau, Montevideo, Uruguay
  • Benziger Family, Carneros, California
  • Kunde Family Estate, Sonoma Valley, California
  • Sunset Meadow Vineyards, Goshen, Connecticut
  • Château Tanesse, Cadillac, France

Holiday Green WINE Guide 2011

Thanksgiving has come and gone and the holiday season is officially upon us. This year, why not put some teeth in the toast “to your health” and pour some green wines for your celebrations? Organic, biodynamic and sustainably farmed wines are great choices for our health and the health of our planet – definitely reasons to celebrate. Below is a list of sixteen of our favorite sparklers, whites, reds and dessert wines in a range of prices.

Wine pouring from bottle

Here's to your health!


Champagnes and Sparklers:

Sparkling wines are a wonderful choice to begin any celebration. The bubbles are beautiful and festive and the high acidity helps refresh the palate between bites, making them the perfect companions to assorted canapés. I prefer my bubbly with oysters or cheese, but it goes equally well with sushi, salty foods and fatty foods.

Champagne Fleury Rosé Brut NV, France ($52) – the first and largest biodynamic producer in France, this estate grows pinot noir almost exclusively, producing some wonderful rosé champagnes.

NV Larmandier-Bernier Premier Cru Vertus, France ($39) – biodynamic champagne made with 100% Premier Cru grapes, including a small amount of pinot noir in this otherwise chardonnay dominant area.

Can Vendrell Cava Brut Reserva, Spain ($25) – organically grown grapes with hints of apple, pear and almonds. Made in the style of champagne.

Altana Rosato Frizzante Perlage, Italy ($15) – a pretty sparkler made from 100% cabernet sauvignon organically grown grapes.


Still Wines:

Bonterra Vineyards Rosé 2009, Mendocino County, California ($17) – a dry, fruity blend of grenache, zinfandel and sangiovese from this organic estate. Enjoy it with crudités, cheese or poultry.

Montinore Estate Borealis 2010 Willamette Valley, Oregon ($16) – a biodynamically farmed blend of müller-thurgau, riesling, pinot gris, and gewürztraminer that makes the perfect aperitif before a holiday meal. It also pairs beautifully with Asian dishes.

Cullen Kevin John Chardonnay, Margaret River, Western Australia 2007 ($62) – another luscious wine from a biodynamic king of chardonnay. This giant would feel right at home in the company of lobster bisque or a rich cream sauce.

Clos de la Coulee de Serrant 2009, France ($85)– Nicolas Joly, one of today’s leading proponents of biodynamic viticulture, has created a luxurious chenin blanc wine from Savennières in the Loire Valley. Rich, creamy and slightly sweet, this would pair well with a gamey bird.

Robert Sinsky Pinot Noir 2009, Los Carneros ($38) – fruit forward and food friendly, this biodynamic silken pinot noir would pair beautifully with holiday ham or salmon.

Domaine Jean Bousquet Malbec 2010, Tupungato, Mendoza ($13) – organic grapes are used to produce this dark and spicy wine with flavors of plums and chocolate. Perfect for pairing with meats and sauces.

Bodegas Luzon “Luzon” Jumilla 2009, Spain ($8) – wonderful example of monastrell for the price and organic, too. The perfect accompaniment to grilled pork or herb roasted meats.

Jean-Michel Stephan Cote-Rotie 2009, France ($65) – listed on Wine Spectator’s top 100 of 2011, this natural wine is 90% syrah and 10% viognier. Pairing this with a holiday prime rib would make even the Grinch smile.

Beckmen Vineyards Purisima Mountain Vineyard Grenache 2008, Santa Ynez Valley ($48) – a standout biodynamic estate creating gorgeous Rhone style wines. Bolstered with a modicum of syrah, this blend would be a beautiful bottle to pair with lamb. May I suggest pomegranate mint sauce?


Dessert Wines:

Sunset Meadow Vineyards Midnight Ice Vidal Blanc Ice Wine, Goshen, CT ($50) – end your meal with a burst of tropical flavors such as lychee, mango and passion fruit with this delicately sweet nectar produced at a sustainably farmed Connecticut winery. Try it with Spanish flan or crème brulee.

Kaori Umeshu Plum Sake Chugoku, Yamaguchi ($36) – infused with organic plums, this plum wine releases beautiful aromas of fruit. Slightly acidic and sweet and perfect served over ice. Vanilla cake or Bananas Foster would show this wine off nicely.

Port Finest Reserve Casal dos Jordoes, Portugal ($32)– a few years ago you would have been hard pressed to find more than one organic port. Now there are several to choose from. Made with organic distilled spirits as well as organic grapes, this port is unfined, unfiltered, and vegan. A decadent end to any meal, sip with a fig, cheese and walnut tart or anything chocolate.

Sunset Meadow Vineyards ~ Born of a Vision

Although Sunset Meadow Vineyards has a long list of numerous awards for outstanding wines produced in the scenic Litchfield Hills of the Western Connecticut Highlands, it is one of their most recent accolades in which owner and winemaker George Motel III takes the greatest pride. Yankee Magazine’s Travel Guide to New England named Sunset Meadow Vineyards New England’s Best Family Winery in 2010 after only having been open for two years. Mr. Motel attributes this honor to the efforts of his staff. Respected by both his employees and his peers, our August Connecticut Corker George Motel plays a prominent role in the Connecticut farm winery industry by virtue of both his wine and his wisdom.

George Motel III of Sunset Meadow Vineyards

George Motel is more than a winemaker or a vineyard owner. He is more than a businessman. George Motel is a visionary. One of his visions materialized in 1995 when he serendipitously drove by the property in Goshen that is now home to Sunset Meadow Vineyards. The vision? Running a farm. Although firmly entrenched in a corporate lifestyle, Motel was not a total stranger to farming, having had a friend with a dairy farm as a child growing up in Seymour, Connecticut. The beautiful piece of property that caught his attention had been a dairy farm in the 1970s. And so Mr. Motel worked his day job and then worked the land at night and on weekends raising beef cattle and providing hay to dairy and horse farmers. It was Grace Nome, President of the Connecticut Specialty Food Association for 26 years, who initially put the bug in Mr. Motel’s ear about growing grapes on his property. Motel was intrigued but not convinced. The very night of Ms. Nome’s prescient suggestion, Mr. Motel returned home from a hard day of corporate work to find a bull in the middle of his driveway. The cattle had broken out and were scattered around the property. Clad in his business suit, Motel spent the evening trying to lure the escaped herd with a pail of grain and a special cattle call in an attempt to restore order. Bovine intervention. It was time for a change.

Sun Dappled Cayuga Vines

Motel enlisted the help of Dr. Richard Kiyomoto, member of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station and well-known advisor to Connecticut grape growers. Dr. Kiyomoto advised Motel to test his site with vines. In 2001, the first grape, cabernet franc, was planted at Sunset Meadow Vineyards (SMV), with chardonnay following closely behind. Motel planted 1,400 vines that first year, choosing seyval blanc, Cayuga and St. Croix, in addition to the chardonnay and cabernet franc. These were followed the next year by another 1,300 vines, vidal blanc, chambourcin, lemberger, riesling, and more chardonnay and cabernet franc. Year three saw the addition of Frontenac, landot and merlot, as well as even more chardonnay and cabernet franc into the sandy loam soil. People were beginning to take notice. An active member of his community through his volunteer basketball coaching, Motel was known around town to the other parents. One year at a New Year’s Eve party, a woman spotted him across the room and sought him out to ask him a question. “Are you the guy planting all those grapes?” she queried. Motel affirmed he was indeed that guy. “Nothing but hay grows in Goshen!” she insisted. 30 acres and 14,000 grape vines later, Motel begs to differ. He still owns more acres that he wants to plant and, with an eye toward the future, he has leased additional acreage nearby. It has gotten to the point where local farmers are approaching him with offers to lease their land.

The transition from cattle to grapes has been a successful one for Motel. A longtime lover of wine, Motel is a big believer in the health benefits associated with drinking it. The merging of his passions for both farming and wine has been a dream come true for him. Having early on determined that the quality of the wine could best be controlled by making the wine himself, Motel enrolled in the UC Davis Enology program. George, his wife Judy and son George IV do everything from growing and harvesting to bottling and selling. “I want to control the whole process.” George explains. “I want to know what’s in the wine.” What is in the wine are Motel’s own estate grown grapes, for the most part. It is Motel’s goal for his wine to comprise 100% estate grown grapes in two years, and he is very close to that goal now. In addition to controlling the process, Motel derives another benefit from doing the winemaking himself. A former musician, Motel views the winery as an opportunity to express himself. “The winemaking aspect of this business allows for some creative expression, expression you don’t get in the business world or in other aspects of the wine business.” As part of creating a healthy environment in which to grow his grapes, sustainable farming methods are utilized and surrounding natural wildlife encouraged. The property is home to many birds including hawks, eagles, bats and owls for which the Motels maintain nesting boxes. No pesticides are used on the vines. If necessary, Japanese Beetles, the only real insect pests in the vineyard, are hand removed. Motel allows the vine canopy to grow higher than he might otherwise because the beetles eat from the top down. He has determined that this is an acceptable sacrifice. Herbicides are used in only the rarest of circumstances and when they are, it is usually a home grade Roundup. Mr. Motel keeps a close personal eye on what transpires on his property. On any given evening or weekend, Motel might be found either walking the vineyards with rescue dog Churchill by his side, or traversing the many acres of grapes on his ATV.

SMV's Vineyard Dog, Churchill

Motel’s commitment to exceptional quality is carried over from the fields to the winery where he employs such methods as racking instead of fining to slowly precipitate out the unwanted solids in the wine. Racking, George believes, better maintains the integrity of the wine. This integrity is preserved by the finest quality cork closures, while also allowing the consumer the traditional uncorking experience. The building that houses the fermentation tanks, barrels and bottling equipment has no air conditioning but is designed to stay cold all year long by use of a louver system. Hot water is instantaneous, heated only when needed, which is both energy efficient and responsible to the environment.

As a visionary, Motel has a keen eye for the bigger picture. He knows that, although the quality of his wines is paramount, there is more required to run his business successfully. The Motels make hospitality and the consumer’s overall experience at their winery priorities. Opened for business in 2008, the spacious tasting room with indoor and outdoor seating, wine-related gifts and friendly staff members enhance visitors’ experiences. The Motels’ attention to detail and customer satisfaction is clearly paying off. 95% of SMV’s total wine sales is attributable to tasting room traffic. In another effort to increase wine sales while facilitating customer convenience, Motel has just added an online shopping cart allowing customers to purchase wine directly from the SMV website. With 13 wines from which to choose, it may be hard settling on just one. I asked Motel which wine is his favorite. “I make all of our wines as if they’re my favorite. Having said that, my passion has always been dry red wine so I guess I enjoy our dry reds the most.”

Farm-to-table wine dinners provide another way of introducing consumers to SMV wines. I recently had the opportunity of participating in the “Sunset in July” Farm to Table Wine Dinner at Sunset Meadow Vineyards which included SMV wine paired with food prepared by the Litchfield Saltwater Grille, as well as a tour of the winery. A bout of uncooperative weather forced the festivities indoors. Luckily, SMV is equipped to house an event of this nature inside their tasting room. The long, family style banquet tables used for outdoor gatherings were abandoned in favor of more intimate seating indoors, with only one elongated table set up for a large party that had arrived together. Conversation was possible between neighboring tables and guests had ample opportunity to mingle at both the raw bar and the tasting bar. The food was sourced from local, sustainable and organic farms and each course was specially paired with SMV wine. The pairings were all successful but the two that stood out for me were the SMV Riesling paired with miniature New England lobster salad rolls, and Cayuga White mated with Connecticut oysters. (More detailed wine tasting notes follow this article.) One of the highlights of the evening was a tour of the winery led by Mr. Motel. Not only were guests allowed a peek into the inner workings of SMV complete with informative and entertaining narration by Mr. Motel, we were treated to a taste of SMV Twisted Red, a cabernet sauvignon blend, straight from the barrel.

[Mr. Motel has consented to WINE publishing video footage of the winery tour conducted inside Sunset Meadow Vineyards the evening of the “Sunset in July” wine dinner. WINE would like to thank Mr. Motel for allowing its readership this exclusive opportunity to gain insight into the workings of a first rate farm winery in a more personal and animated way. The footage is presented below in two parts.]
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When he is not pruning vines or bottling wines, Mr. Motel spends time in his official capacity as Vice President of the Connecticut Vineyard & Winery Association working to further the interests of the Connecticut farm wine industry as a whole. This includes keeping a watchful eye on the industry, working on beneficial legislation, and doing marketing and promotional events. Motel was involved in the recent passage of the legislation authorizing the sale of Connecticut wines at farmers’ markets and he is working to get legislation passed that would allow Connecticut farm wineries a second festival each year. They are currently limited to just one, The Connecticut Wine Festival. Mr. Motel is Chairman of this Festival, an annual event promoting The Connecticut Wine Trail that saw more than 8,000 participants over the course of the last weekend in July this year.

So what is George Motel’s vision for the future? Organic grape growing, for one thing. Practically unheard of in Connecticut due to the challenging climate, Motel has targeted a block of his St. Croix grapes to grow organically. One year into the project, things appear to be going well. “We are encouraged by the early progress and results but remain cautiously optimistic,” reports Motel. What else is in SMV’s future? He’s not ready to reveal all just yet. But George Motel has a way of making his visions come true. I suggest we keep watching.

Sunset Meadow Vineyards Tasting Room

Sunset Meadow Vineyards is open Sunday, Monday & Thursday from 11-5 and Friday & Saturday from 11-6.
599 Old Middle Street, Goshen, CT 06756

Wines to Uncork

Cayuga White 2010 – Exceptionally crisp and thirst-quenching, this dry expression of the Cayuga grape is acidic and well-balanced with the perfect hint of citrus and stone fruits.
Merlot – Soft and unassuming, this Bordeaux style merlot flaunts red berries with undercurrents of anise and a velvety smooth finish.
St. Croix – Smokey, sexy, dry and quite quaffable. I have yet to find a St. Croix I prefer more.
Twisted Red – A dry, big-bodied blend in the style of Bordeaux with dark red fruit flavors and a touch of spice.
Rosé – An elegant rosé in the style of Provence, luscious red fruits just barely peek through this delightfully dry salmon-pink beauty.
Pyrrha’s Passion – This beautifully bottled wine is a sweeter expression of the St. Croix grape perfect for accompanying desserts. Slightly nutty and hinting of caramel, the wine’s complexity is reminiscent of port.
Midnight Ice – This intoxicatingly aromatic ice wine boasts bold fruit aromas and flavors, especially honeydew melon and lychee. It has a honey-like viscosity on the tongue and is richly layered. Limited.