Mindful(l) of Wine: Who Really Knows?

September 25, 2018

Sunrise Champagne

The movement against chemical farming has slowly begun to thaw my feelings about regions like Champagne, a region that without a canopy of leaves to hide its sins looks post-apocalyptic—much like the majority of the vineyards in Beaujolais and many other viticultural areas. (Though at least in Beaujolais the weather is nicer and the cuisine more rich in plant-based foods than the dense, cold-weather offerings in Champagne that require a high acid, sparkly drink to extract the fat and weight of the food from your palate.) It’s interesting and a bit sad that two of France’s most festive wines come from two of its biggest offenders against nature.

At The Source, we are advocates of wine made in the most natural way. Nearly all of the producers we import have certification in organic and/or biodynamic methods or from some other governing ecological club; new ones seem to pop up every day in the spirit of adding to or subtracting from the restrictions in the EU’s organic certification.

There are many producers who sit out certification altogether but practice exceptionally conscious ecological common sense and, in many cases, farm with even more respect for nature than is required by some certifications. They recognize that ecological organizations are prone to the defect of politics as occurs anywhere in business and don’t want someone (who likely has never farmed before) to tell them how to correctly farm their vineyards, nor do they want to stand by while nature takes away a year’s bounty as they adhere to the restrictions. Furthermore, there are already enough restrictions put in place by the government within every appellation.

One of the most well-known “natural wine” producers we work with has begun to push against France’s AB (Agriculture Biologique) certification. Jean-Louis Dutraive, of Beaujolais fame, decided last year to forgo placing the EU organic certification logo on his label (despite maintaining the certification) because he believes that the enforcement of the practices in the vineyards and cellars are not truly consistent with the ideals of organic wine, and there are too many who use it for the certification but bend in every corner they can get away with.

If what “substances” are used to assist the growth and crafting of the wines are of concern, it’s not easy to know which direction to go. Who knows who’s done what, even with certifications? It makes it an even more daunting task because how is one to know the deal while talking with a sommelier or a wine shop specialist who has likely never set foot in the vineyard or cellar of the producer they may be recommending on the premise of mere claims of ecologically responsible practices. This is not the fault of the wine professionals, most of whom don’t have the opportunity to visit producers in Europe. To add to the confusion, EU organic certification is not allowed on the label of an imported wine anyway. (Though some slip through, of course, but it’s not legally permitted.)

I can say that as an importer, it’s not so easy for us either. The answer is to go straight to the source, and that’s our job. We are the ones who need to ask the hard and sometimes uncomfortable questions, but also to walk and scrutinize the vineyards and cellar with our own eyes. I want to be shown, not just told. The best solution to this conundrum of truth seeking is to truly get to KNOW YOUR SOURCE.

Somewhere on every imported wine there is a government required acknowledgment of who imported the wine and it must be in print as “Imported by….,” with the name of the city in which the license is held. There may also be a logo of another company (or the same as the import company) on the back label (or elsewhere on the bottle) that’s involved in the selection process in some markets; in our case, we work with selections from Becky Wasserman, Dade Theriot and Jerome Brenot (known as “Grenouille”), as well as my finds that go under The Source label, Vance Wine Selections. Of course, I know all the producers we import and visit almost everyone each year. Now that we carry almost 130 producers, it has become a four-month task.

There are a lot of great importers in the States (and all over the world) who represent many different approaches. Some are dogmatic in their selections and have a religious adherence to their ideals of no additives (including sulfites)—most often with natural wines, a category without an organizational or governing body, just the winemaker’s voluntary inclusion in the movement—despite overlooking the tremendous amount of Copper Sulfate and elemental sulfur sprays (usually three times the amount of a sustainable practice) sprayed in their vineyards to counteract the two famous mildews: Powdery (sulfur treatment) and Downey (copper treatment). Others remain flexible yet firm in their ecological approach (which we advocate) leaving room to salvage a crop in the face of dire circumstances, though the reality is that most who decide to veer from organic or biodynamic treatments in tough moments regret it and often never do it again. Then again, some importers want wines that taste good to them and don’t care what choices are made in the vineyard or cellar so long as the wine is to their liking, while others just want to make a buck and don’t even care if it’s good.

Compelling wine can be found in all of these approaches (rarely in the latter, of course), and there’s no monopoly on natural and organic wines by the idealist importers; in fact, many of the greatest practitioners of “natural” and organic wines have long since been represented by importers who have simply been around the longest. This is no surprise, since wines made more organically or naturally decades ago were held to a higher standard of craft in the cellar than today’s natural wines, which have been relatively excused by some of the new workarounds within the practice. They were good wines to begin with and whether they were organic or natural was an afterthought.