The fine print

Pub date May 16, 2006

"People will sleep better not knowing how their sausage and politics are made," Otto von Bismarck said and he might have added wine to the list, though one sees the Iron Chancellor as more of a beer man. The production of wine grapes in recent decades has become a festival of chemicals pesticides, fertilizers from which many of us instinctively avert our gaze; we like wine, we want good wine, and when we get good wine, we are not inclined to ask any questions.

Still, there is growing evidence that a paradigm shift is under way, to judge by the public relations emphasis that winemakers around the world are placing on organic and biodynamic grape production and on the broader if slightly hazier theme of sustainability. Whether people will pay a premium for wine that’s produced in environmentally sensitive fashion is still largely an open question, since at the moment eco-friendly wine represents a tiny fraction of the world’s overall wine production. But if people are willing to pay more for organic produce, as seems to be the case, it is likely they will be willing to pay more too for wines produced in an environmentally responsible way providing they can figure out which wines those are.

At the moment, the labeling practices of the wine industry are of little or no use in helping wine buyers figure this out. At a recent forum sponsored by the Sonoma Vintners Association, I found myself examining a bottle of zinfandel I knew for a fact to have been produced at a biodynamic winery but the label breathed not a word of that noble story. One longtime Sonoma winemaker admitted to me that labeling was an issue and that winemakers, even beyond issues of certification, need to do more visually to let buyers know what they’re up to.

Meantime, you label-scanning wine hounds might look for the following (usually in uncomfortably fine print) on bottlings you’re interested in: "CCOF," which indicates compliance of some sort (most likely organic grapes) with the California Organic Foods Act of 1990, and/or "Demeter," which is the certification agency for biodynamic agriculture. I found the latter recently on a bottle of 2003 Côtes du Rhône from Château de Bastet (for more info go to, along with organic certification from Quality Assurance International and Ecocert, another pair of word patterns to look for, in lieu of logos, which for once are actually called for.