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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Organics 101

Organics 101

Like many of you, I thought I could skate through college without ever having to take a serious science class. It’s not like you need to know about the endoplasmic reticulum to write a novel or to buy a bottle of wine. But whether you shop at Whole Foods or Shaws, Marty’s or winecommune.com, it’s become impossible to ignore the science of organics. In fact, it doesn’t get more scientific than the chemistry of what we eat and drink, even though the organic movement is more about environmental science and human biology than it is about the chemical make up of what we ingest.

Without getting too scientific, though, it’s necessary to define what organic means, and how it impacts what we consume. For agricultural products to be certified organic, they must be produced naturally, that is, without the use of chemical herbicides, pesticides, fungicides or fertilizers. Ever wonder why the non-organic fruit tends to look better in the produce aisle of your local grocer? Typically, non-organic fruits and vegetables are genetically modified to yield large crops of uniformly attractive and flavorful produce. A thin layer of wax is usually sprayed on after the items are picked to mask imperfections and to ensure that colors are bright and shiny. Still, there is a more fundamental reason for the “big and juicy” porn-star look of non-organic fruit. The chemical fertilizers used for industrial farming are basically salts. When you have too much salt, you become thirsty, and when you’re thirsty, you drink a lot. Plants act the same way as humans do in that respect, and so they end up retaining H2O the way you or I would after eating a bucket of KFC. Water, unfortunately, also acts to dilute the flavor of whatever fruit or vegetable you’re eating. The supermarket price may therefore be lower for non-organic items, but the extra water-weight will end up costing you a whole lot more for something less flavorful.

Wine grapes, being an agricultural product, work the same way. Profit-focused corporations generally prefer to produce 6 to10 tons/acre of chemically enhanced grapes, rather than 2 to 3 tons of more flavorful fruit. More flavorful fruit will, of course, in turn, yield more flavorful wine. Corporations, though, are only interested in balancing quantity and quality to maximize profit potential. Being an educated consumer is your best and only weapon to help combat the legal poisoning of what you eat and drink.

For a long time, people have perceived organic wine as a crunchy hippy beverage, but the reality is that the top five or ten wines in the world are all produced organically. Because of the existing perception though, winemakers oftentimes will not pay the thousands of dollars it costs to become a certified organic property. Even so, many wineries around the globe have made, or are making the switch to organic viticulture and sustainable farming. Instead of polluting the earth with toxins that will kill or stunt microbial activity in the soil, grape growers now try to increase “life” in the land since that is where a plant gets most of its nutrition.

Why has public perception been so slow to change regarding organic wine? One possible explanation is that early organic wineries made wines that tasted funky, flat, or dirty. Like any endeavor, it took time to perfect the appropriate techniques to grow grapes organically. Additionally, many of the early organic wine pioneers withheld sulfur from their wines, thinking that sulfites were harmful to human health. Sulfur, though, is an organic compound that in small quantities acts as a natural preservative to stabilize wines and to keep each bottle tasting fresh. In fact, even wine that is labeled “sulfite-free” contains trace amounts of the compound because sulfur dioxide is a natural byproduct of fermentation. Organic winemakers, even today, do use less sulfur in the vineyard and in the bottle than non-organic wineries, because non-organic properties must constantly battle pestilence and disease. Healthy vines can fight and withstand the vagaries of nature better than chemically dependent ones. The stress that organic vines bear allows their grapes to have more character and depth of flavor, because those vines can direct a large amount of their energy into grape production. Chemically dependent vines become lazy, since all their nutrition and immune system maintenance are taken care of by fertilizers and weed killers.

The winemaker Robert Sinskey explains organics with a story about why he weaned his land off chemicals several years ago. Sinskey walked through his vineyard one day and spotted a worker in a yellow hazmat suit spraying the vines with a chemical herbicide. Sinskey wondered what he was doing making wine from grapes sprayed with a chemical poisonous to taste or touch. It just didn’t make sense to him. In an age where cancer and disease prevention are national priorities, why do we continue to ingest products with poisons in them? “If you cannot pronounce an ingredient, you should not ingest it,” another grape-grower tells me.

The next time you’re at the supermarket or in your local wine shop, think about the toxins you take into your body on a daily basis and make an educated choice about whether to buy organic or non-organic products. It’s a decision that just may save your life.

A partial listing of organic wineries can be found online at http://www.travelenvoy.com/wine/organicwines.htm