There's something about organics that brings out the best and worst in people, especially those who see the world in black and white. Add the word "wine" to the conversation and you have a debate of mammoth proportions.
The online Organic Journal offers a definition of organic wine by writers Adam Morgenstern and Evan Spingam that covers most of the bases yet illustrates the problem of trying to pigeon hole an explanation everyone can agree on.
In the vineyard, "organic wine is made from grapes that have been grown without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides." At the winery, production should be guided by "little or no manipulation of wines by reverse osmosis, excessive filtration, or flavour additives (such as oak chips)."
Add to that the raging debate on how sulphites should or should not be used in organic wine production (standards vary across the world) and you have quite a mess. Similar issues surround the somewhat more cerebral bio-dynamic winemaking standards based on the teachings of Austrian anthroposophist, Rudolph Steiner (1861-1925), that bring homeopathic and astrological considerations into the organic process.
Minutiae aside, in 25 years of interviewing winemakers and grape growers, it's clear to me that there's a growing awareness among all involved that the Earth is a precious, finite resource and what they do every day has an effect on their health, the health of their employees and families, and the health of their customers. More and more producers rightly see themselves as stewards of the land and they conduct themselves and their businesses accordingly.
Are there still cheaters? Yes. Do some use organics to pass off poor wine to unsuspecting consumers? You bet. But that happens in all facets of life. Natural wines, green wines, Earth-friendly wines, fish-friendly wines, organic wines and biodynamic wines are only words, not deeds. The bigger picture is the wine business at the grass roots level is taking the lead in instituting all measures of environmentally responsible agriculture and wine production.
In places like Chile, California and New Zealand, the wine industry has launched comprehensive programs to change the culture of wine growing from the ground up, including trying to effect cultural change among its employees as well. In South Africa, wine producers are also at the forefront of removing non-indigenous vegetation and letting the land return to its normal state.
None of these programs are necessarily certified by government agency, but like many of Europe's producers who work organically and do not seek certification, caring for their special piece of dirt to the best of their ability may be the most important result of all. The good news for wine buyers is the field of wines made with organically grown grapes is expanding quickly and that means more choice.