The Drinker’s Dilemma

April 12, 2008 at 10:46 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , )

This post is a bit reflective, and a bit more involved with my formal academic training as an anthropologist…but is also intrinsically interwoven with my work in wine.  I have been thinking, and thinking, and thinking, so now I’ll type a bit and hope to share some new knowledge, as well as encourage a discourse with you and the Lush staff.  I am enthralled and intrigued and just can’t get enough of the thinking.

I have been nose deep into Michael Pollan’s book ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma,’ and seriously captivated by his ruminations, experiences, and featured meals.  Basically, Pollan is asking us to THINK about what we are eating.  As I continue reading, he has engaged me in an interal dialogue about how I eat, as well as drink.  To me, a veritable wine geek and emerging foodie, these two things, ‘eating’ and ‘drinking’ are not really separate entities, because I feel one lacks without the other.  It’s not as if I haven’t thought about this whole ‘where does my food come from and what nasty pesticide is being poured on and how are the animals treated’ thing before…I grew up on a farm in the Ozarks of rural Arkansas where eggs were gathered, deer were hunted, cows made milk and meat, ‘and animals as well as vegetables were killed or died…it’s just that Michael Pollan doesn’t really let you turn away and is very eloquent about his own internal struggle.  And, I think all commerical grocery stores, like commerical wine stores, are in it for profit and move through massive product and just want the process to be as ‘clean’, quick, and inexpensive as possible.  I also agree that ‘organic’ is not the magic eraser that fixes everything.  I would very much like to know who grew my fruit and veggies, eat seasonally, and know the name of the animal I am chomping on.  But, today…in a big city…how do you and I reconcile all this?!?  He made my mind rumble.

This is a little blurb on Omnivore’s Dilemma and Michael Pollan:  ‘His absorbing narrative takes us from Iowa cornfields to food-science laboratories, from feedlots and fast-food restaurants to organic farms and hunting grounds, always emphasizing our dynamic coevolutionary relationship with the handful of plant and animal species we depend on.  Each time Pollan sits down to a meal, he deploys his unique blend of personal and investigative journalism to trace the origins of everything consumed, revealing what we unwittingly ingest and explaining how our taste for particular foods and flavors reflects our evolutionary inheritance. ‘

Alright, now this is were we morph into the relevant wine thread of thought…I was encouraged recently by a Roscoe village local, Ms. Will, to engage in a conversation over email about organic and bio-dynamic wines.  She happens to hold a first level sommolier certificate and work for the SunTimes.  So, these are my thoughts on the subject!  I am rambling a bit and I didn’t list my references…I did borrow some words and some concepts, but I interjected quite a bit of personal opinion, interpretation and editorial into it.  There is so much to learn about ‘green’ wines and winemaking in general, and it always changes as techniques advance or winemakers get innovative and artistic in their approach.  And please keep in mind that like organic food from giant industrial farms, biodynamic or organic don’t always mean it will taste good or be better for you ultimately. 

At LUSH, our basic perception of winemaking is that it is essentially an organic process by default.  Making wine is entirely an agricultural endeavor, and smart growers and winemakers understand this and treat the land and juice carefully and with respect for the consumer.  And, the finished wine is an organic entity by the true definition of the term.

However, the perception and practice of organically produced wines have been marred by modern bulk winemaking techniques and factory-based mass production facilities in which questionable techniques are utilized.  Sulfites and SO2 are dumped in to preserve the poor quality wine and promote shelf-life rather than taste.  This is an approach that marginalizes wine as a ‘commodity’ with little intrinsic value.  But, on the other hand, sulfites have revolutionized the wine industry, enabling wine to travel more safely and taste more consistent over time.  Sulfites act as a preservative and a foil against oxidation, and in small quantities works miracles.  Most winemakers utilize sulfites during the winegrowing and winemaking process…either as a spray on the grapes and vine, at bottling, or during aging in barrel.  To be truly ‘organic’ at this very moment, a winemaker may NOT add any additional sulfites at any time….we’ll get into this more later, but grape seeds, stem, and skin all contain trace amounts of sulfites naturally, so it is impossible to have a wine free of ALL sulfites. 

As you may have noticed at LUSH, we try to take the commodity out of wine.  Yes, we are selling wine.  But, we hope to also encourage the consumption of wine as an educational or at the very least sensual experience to share with friends, family, and other wine enthusiasts!  And, we highly suggest experimenting with price range, flavors, grapes, countries and such to find your personal taste spectrum.  What you do not care for is just as important as what your favorites are…and tastes shift and fluctuate over time, as well. 

Up until recently, many ‘organic’ wines tasted just plain awful.  With the market shifting to accommodate more refined wine palates and winemakers refining their skills, we are noticing more and more organic options that are also delicious.  Many people are opting to drink organic or biodynamic as a ‘green’ statement for sustainability, but also because they may be sensitive to sulfites, or prefer to have less ‘preservative’ added to their wine.  And, new research, which is by no means fully substantiated yet, suggests that histamines may actually be the cause of many ‘wine headaches’ rather than the vilified sulfites. 

Now, as for organic and biodynamic wines and producers, there is a general state of confusion out there.  I will try to give you a brief sketch without droning on about technicalities and such, but there are very specific definitions, certifications, and practices that must be delineated, obtained, and fulfilled.

Following the recent creation by the USDA of a National Organic Program, an organic wine is now defined as ‘a wine made from organically grown grapes and without any added sulfites.’ By this unfortunate restriction, the vast majority of what we all have been calling organic wines must now be referred to ON the LABEL as ‘wines made from organic grapes’ or ‘organically grown grapes,’ as they are allowed to contain up to 100 ppm of added sulfites.  Keep in mind this a very very miniscule amount of added sulfites.  While we support the effort of some winemakers to explore avenues to eliminate the use of sulfur dioxide, the truth is that wines without added sulfites are very few in number and very unstable in quality, giving the public a negative perception of what organic wine can be. The wine industry is the only one that cannot call its product ‘organic’ even though it is made with more than 95% of organic components. With the previously permissible level of 100ppm SO2 present in the wine, the percentage is still 99.99% organic!


It is helpful to think of biodynamics not primarily as an agricultural system, but rather as an altered philosophy or worldview that then impacts on the practice of agriculture in various ways. In other words, to farm biodynamically, first you have to think biodynamically

.  As a practical method of farming, biodynamics embodies the ideal of ever-increasing ecological self-sufficiency just as with modern agroecology, but arrives at this goal via ethical-spiritual considerations. Intention, focus on detail, inner attitude and so on, are valued as part and parcel of mastering excellence in grape growing and wine making.




It has its roots in a series of lectures delivered by Austrian philosopher–scientist Rudolf Steiner in 1924. Steiner’s life mission was to bridge the gap between the material and spiritual worlds through the philosophical method. To this end, he created the ‘spiritual science’ of anthroposophy, which he used as the basis of the Waldorf school system that persists to this day.

It was only quite late on in Steiner’s life that he turned to agriculture: his eight lectures, entitled Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture, were delivered just a year before his death, but they remain as the foundation of biodynamic farming. Modern biodynamic practice is built on top of Steiner-inspired theories, but it is important to emphasize that there are a number of growers who practice biodynamics but who would distance themselves from Steiner’s beliefs and teachings.  

Key to biodynamics is considering the farm in its entirety as a living system. To this end, biodynamic farms are supposed to be closed, self-sustaining systems. Biodynamics also sees the farm in the context of the wider pattern of lunar and cosmic rhythms. In this holistic view, the soil is seen not simply as a substrate for plant growth, but as an organism in its own right. The idea of using synthetic fertilizers or pesticides is thus an anathema to biodynamic practitioners. Instead, they use a series of special preparations to enhance the life of the soil, which are applied at appropriate times in keeping with the rhythms of nature. And disease is seen not as a problem to be tackled head-on, but rather as a symptom of a deeper malaise within the farm ‘organism’…correct the problem in the system and the disease will right itself.

Biodynamics is in effect a supercharged system of organic farming. Where biodynamics differs significantly in practice from organics is in the use of these special preparations and the timing of their application—in other ways the techniques employed are quite similar.  

As I’ve talked to various biodynamic winegrowers from around the world, one thing has become clear. While they tend to agree on the big details, each has their developed biodynamics to suit their own particular situation. Winegrowers drawn to this philosophy tend to be inventive types, always experimenting and refining their practices to see what works best. As a result, there are many different flavors and variations around this common theme, and it’s hard to define biodynamics in any sort of rigid way.

It’s also very hard to get an accurate picture of just how many wine producers are employing biodynamie. For a start, it’s a method of cultivation that is rapidly catching on among wine producers—in particular in Burgundy and Alsace—so the list is growing rapidly. And besides those who are certified biodynamic, there are also those who dabble in it, or who are experimenting with part of their production…many winemakers will say they are organic and mostly biodynamic, but not have either printed on the label or ‘officially’ recognized.  It is a rapidly changing picture.

Another complicating factor is that there are many different flavors of biodynamie. It’s hard to be precise about exactly what is and what isn’t biodynamics. Some people quietly get on with it, while others shout about it, which makes the compilation of a definitive list of biodynamic producers a near impossible task. 

Much like organics, there are certain rules that you have to adhere to in order to be able to label your wine as being ‘biodynamic’. By far the largest certification body is Demeter, an international organization formed in 1928, right at the dawn of biodynamic agriculture. Demeter have member organizations who act as certifying bodies in dozens of different countries, all of which fall under the organizational umbrella of Demeter International.  ‘The full use of biodynamic methods would be required for two years.

It really is not a huge step from standard organic practice to becoming a certified biodynamic winegrower. Of course, the majority of biodynamic practitioners would claim that fitting in with the rhythms of nature and the wider cosmos are critical to the effectiveness of this form of agriculture, but it is interesting that they are not necessary for certification. I suspect many growers of a more scientific persuasion could be tempted to take a pragmatic approach to biodynamie, reasoning that there is a scientifically plausible mechanism of action to its practice if it simply involved the use of the various preparations, without adherence to a cosmic calendar.

So, while this is far from a complete picture of organic and biodynamic wine, this gets you started on what is going on.  There is much more information out there…but make sure the research is sound and the wine tastes good!  As for food, I would like mine to taste good and not make me wind up with cancer, kill birds, or cause unnecessary suffering.  I will most likely join a CSA this summer, and I do usually avoid the big supermarkets and opt for a local, ‘European’ market that has super fresh seasonal produce, inexpensive meat that looks like the animal it came from, and really good cheese…but I am buying some imports and I like them. And, I often buy international wine. I am attempting to not eat a whole bunch of fossil fuel with my food, but some big changes in this country will have to go down before I can make such a significant change.  I have to be honest…convenience, at times, dominates my culinary decisions.  But, I am making a real effort to get all that damn corn out of my food, avoid processing (no more easy, ‘healthy’ frozen dinners!), and make thoughtful decisions.  Now I just have to finish the book…but all this writing made me want a snack and a glass of wine.

THINK about what you DRINK and EAT!  And, chat with me anytime…Ciao!

Posted by Rachel



  1. Jack said,

    I’ve compiled a very comprehensive, but not complete list of Biodynamic Producers here:

  2. said,

    thanks so much 🙂

  3. Julianne said,


    First, you rock in your encyclopedic knowledge, especially married with your contagious passion for wine.

    Second, if you need someone to go in on a CSA share with you, let me know. We got to try bok choy, heirloom tomatoes and much more from a wonderful organic farming family in Fort Wayne two summers ago, and it was such an adventure to open our bag each week.

    Third, thanks a million for sharing such a thoughtful perspective on this issue. It’s made me rethink “organic” altogether and focus on production instead. With the huge volume of fruits and salads we consume in our house, it’s really important to me to know that the place they’re grown is pure and the way they’re brought to market is pure. I really liked chatting with the man who pulled the weeds around my green beans.

    And a shout out to Jack for a fabulous list. I look forward to checking it out!


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