04/18/12 – March Craziness week #3 (organic vs. non-organic wines)

By Jesse on April 10, 2012

For the fifth non-consecutive year, the Young Winos of LA are proud to host our almost-annual March blind tasting tournament. Billed as “March Madness” in its 2007, 2009 and 2010 incarnations, the tournament at one point included six weeks of variety-by-variety blind tasting (Sauvignon Blanc one week, Syrah the next, etc.), followed by a two-week “championship” series of multi-variety blind white tasting followed by blind red tasting. This year, to allow for our increasingly busy schedules and the demands of our non-wine commitments, the proceedings won’t be as lengthy and regimented as years past. In what we’re calling our first-ever “March Craziness” tournament, we’re basically just running a semi-random series of blind tastings that features pairings or groupings of similar and/or frequently-confused wines.

The first week, we did “Cabernet Sauvignon vs. Merlot,” and last week we did “Pinot Gris vs. Pinot Blanc.” This week, we’re moving on to another side-by-side comparison that’s prompted rancorous debate in Winos meetings past: organic wines vs. non-organic (i.e. conventionally produced) wines.

This tasting presents a bit of a challenge, as the term “organic” means different things in different parts of the winemaking world. In the US, it requires USDA certification, without which no wine producer may label his or her wines “organic.”  Elsewhere in the world, certification and labeling practices vary, and some producers (particularly in Europe) have been employing purely organic practices for hundreds of years. However, many winemakers both here and abroad who produce grapes using organic methods choose not to label their wines “organic” — due either to the time and costs involved in the certification process, or simply to their disinterest in self-identifying as organic. (There’s also “biodynamic,” a highly regimented subset of organic farming which incorporates astrology and cosmic teachings into wine production, but even some winemakers who employ certain biodynamic practices may choose not to label their wines as “biodynamic” for the same reasons.)

Also at issue is the fact that USDA-certified organic wines aren’t allowed to contain sulpher dioxide (sulfites), a preservative used in almost all non-fortified wines. Winemakers who farm organically but still wish to include sulfites may opt for the label “made with organically-grown grapes,” which also requires certification. Here’s an LA Times article about the “organic wine” labeling mess, and here’s a skeptical SF Weekly piece about biodynamic farming (which I include for Jason’s benefit, so he doesn’t rant too much about the idiocy of biodynamics at the meeting).

Regardless of the complexity of the labeling issue, what prompted this tasting was that certain Young Winos have, in the past, expressed a pronounced dislike for wines labeled “organic” (and/or “biodynamic”), and have stated their belief that such wines typically exhibit a particular flavor or set of flavors — sometimes politely described as “dirty and earthy,” other times less politely described using choice four-letter words. I’ve always been a bit dubious that one can taste in a glass of wine whether or not the winemaker employed conventional pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, so here’s our chance to find out: on Tuesday night, we’ll be blind-tasting a lineup of bottles, some of which are labeled “organic,” or “made with organically grown grapes,” or “biodynamic,” and others which bear no such label. As I mentioned, some wines that aren’t labeled “organic” (et al.) may have gone through an entirely organic production, but if they’re not actively labeling themselves as such, then we’re not evaluating them as such. After all, our resident organiphobes have expressed their blanket disdain for wines labeled “organic,” not for possibly organic wines that aren’t labeled that way.

(Counterintuitively, I find myself in the unusual position of secretly hoping that everyone guesses poorly on Wednesday night — which, in effect, would reinforce my belief that farming practices aren’t something you can taste. But we’ll see!)

To participate in this week’s tasting: please bring any bottle of wine, red or white, and we’ll all try to guess if it has some kind of “organic” label or not, based on how it smells and tastes.  To be counted as organic, your wine must bear one of the following labels: “organic,” “biodynamic,” or “made with organically grown grapes.”  To be counted as non-organic, your wine must not have the word “organic” anywhere on the label, nor make reference to organic farming methods anywhere on the label, front or back.  (One last directive: we’re not taking so-called “natural wines” into consideration this week.  Although the natural wines debate is an active and fascinating one right now, we’re sticking to a strict comparison between those wines that label themselves as organic and those that do not.)  As always, feel free to bring a $10 no-bottle donation instead.

Wednesday night’s meeting will be held at Aimee’s place in Brentwood (start time is 8:30 PM), and spots will be assigned on a first-come-first-poured basis. The RSVP system functions like this: if you want in, you click on this link and tell me so (don’t forget your full name, e-mail address, and a cute message conveying to me your intentions), and I’ll send you a confirmation e-mail with the address. Once you’ve received your confirmation, go find an interesting bottle of wine that either says something about “organic” or that doesn’t — or, as always, simply bring ten dollars. See you on Wednesday at 8:30 PM.