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.