Organic Discussion in the HRV Tasting Room


Organic Discussion - Halter Ranch Vineyard

Spring blossoms


I recently had a conversation in the tasting room with a very pleasant and well spoken group of customers who were interested in the role of organic certification in wine.  After discussing I was left with the sense that both sides of the conversation were left a bit confused as the result of impressions we each held about the truth and meaning behind certification.  What follows is an exploration of the distinctions between organic, biodynamic, and or sustainable.  You will find that I have bias toward one of the programs, and this is something I am willing to both admit and accept.  I welcome commentary so please don’t be shy about offering your own opinions, questions, or suggestions in the comments section following this post. 

It would be illegitimate of me to offer opinion in regard to this delicate issue without giving some detail about my background.  I began here at Halter Ranch directly as the result of a conversation in the HRV tasting room revolving around Biodynamics and Sustainability.  These are issues I hold near my heart for (I perceive) good reason.  I believe it is in the interest of any consumer to have a modicum of awareness in regard to how products are made and where they come from.  Now that we no longer hunt and gather or individually produce the calories we need daily through farming or other means, the choice over who produces the foods and beverages we consume and how they are produced becomes much more important.

Organic is historically and currently, due to its prevalence, the touchstone of such interest.  The arrival of third party certification for organic may be perceived conceptually as a movement away from farming with a mind toward chemical controls, but it was and is also, a method of creating a niche market, a separation in order to secure the corner of consumers who embrace the tenants of organic faith.  I am by no means  interested in diminishing or put down the significance of the movement.  The step away from chemical control, and toward more minimalist and balanced farming is monumental in many ways but particularly given the fact that it offers we consumers increased opportunity over what we allow into our bodies. It is important to note however, that there is a marketing component to each designation, be it biodynamic, organic, or sustainable.

Biodynamics originated with renaissance type Rudolph Steiner who (among many other varied achievments)  created a philosophy and lifestyle around farming within an ecosystem, using natural methods, various soil treatments, and (arguably) a little magic.  It would be possible to assert that third party certification for a biodynamic program flies in the face of the core philosophy behind biodynamics given that its origins are the result of a countercultural movement reacting against bureaucratic societal apparatus.  That said, the certifying body for biodynamics in the US is the Demeter organization (linked up above) and I suspect most consumers are willing to forgive the philosophical discrepancy for the sake of a certification seal on the consumable good in question.  For examples of wineries that farm biodynamically check out Tablas Creek Vineyard, Ambyth Estates, and Ampelos Cellars.

Of the three, the SIP program is the only one that was designed specifically for vineyards and wine.  In this sense it might be considered pragmatic from the perspective of a vineyard given that it addresses particular aspects of farming (such as in row tilling) that are specific (if not entirely exclusive) to producing wine grapes.  It is also the youngest of the three programs, the first certification took place in 2008, and the program overall is rapidly gaining popularity as it spreads outward from its origin here on the Central Coast.

USDA Organic focuses, from the perspective of a vineyard/winery, almost purely on farming practice and (lack of) synthetic chemical applications.  Both Biodynamics and SIP function very similarly to organic programs in the vineyard but also use the term sustainable in their basic tenants and approach the vineyard as an ecosystem as opposed to a crop.  Of the three, SIP is the only one that adds requirements for a sustainable business plan and positive employee treatment in the form of continuing education, wages, and benefits.

The crux of my personal distress over the discussion I mentioned in the opening paragraph is the sense that there was a communication breakdown based upon personal disposition.  The customers I mentioned held that organic was the certification worth seeking based upon popularity and familiarity.  As a brand, USDA Organic is far more well known than either SIP or biodynamics.  For me, the situation is more grey, SIP fits best with the philosophy here at Halter Ranch and is the most stringent in terms of how varied the requirements are, but all three certifications have their niche and are from my perspective, steps in the direction farming must go as we embark toward the future.  Additionally, there are many small producers (Terry Hoage comes immediately to mind) that may practice organic, biodynamic, or sustainable farming but cannot or choose not to pay the somewhat exorbitent expense of becoming certified.  What is significant to me about all three options (it should be noted that there are more than just three, but these are the ones I’ve chosen to focus upon given experience and proximity) is that they create a spectrum of choice and that we as consumers should be encouraged to educate ourselves toward deciding what suits us best.



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