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dinner with pesticide?

every bottle of conventionally farmed wine sampled in a widely cited Pesticide Action Network (PAN) study contained pesticides at a level of 230 times the legal limit for drinking water. half of those pesticides were known carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, and reproductive toxins. none of the organically farmed wines contained pesticide residues.

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the quick and dirty on wine headaches

(it's probably not sulfites)

the sulfur paradox

In the cacophonous echo chamber of natural wine, sulphur is loudly assailed as the root of all evil.  It’s not, but it’s easy to understand, blame, and frame as a one-size-fits all repudiation of the industrialized wine industry by well-intentioned rebels.  I can understand how they got there, but there’s some context that might be worthy to consider.

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Sulphur FAQ

Elemental sulfur (S): non-soluble and inert essential mineral for plant life.

Sulfate sulfur (SO4^-2): oxidized sulfur, the only form of sulfur absorbable by plants.

Copper sulfate (CuSO4): application of copper and sulphur used in organic vineyards to combat fungus.

Sulfites (SO2): naturally occurring by-product of alcoholic fermentation and commonly found in wineries as powdered potassium metabisulfite, sulfites are often added to wine directly in small amounts and mixed with water to clean winemaking equipment.  While normally undetectable, too much can make a wine smell or taste of a sneezy spicy struck match odor, or an itching at the back of the throat.

Sulfides (H2S): naturally occurring compound created by stressed yeast in the absence of oxygen reminiscent of rotten eggs or low tide.  At high levels, they’re an unpleasant fault.  At lower levels they disappear quickly and can indicate quality and aging potential in young wines: wines grown organically, ripened fully, and made in a low-oxygen environment can have high levels of electrons, which protect them from oxidation naturally.  Wines in this charged or “reduced” state quickly “blow off” sulfides as the wine becomes less charged through oxygen exposure and “opens.”

SO2 is antimicrobial and works against oxidation.  It doesn’t prevent oxidation directly, rather it scours wine for oxidized particles, binds to them, and falls out of solution.  Often, winemakers will speak about ‘free’ and ‘total’ SO2, ‘free’ describing the SO2 in solution still available to bind to oxidized particles.

The higher a wine’s pH, the less effective SO2 becomes.  pH rises over a grape’s maturation cycle, and is generally higher in grapes grown in high-yielding, fertile soils; wines grown in these conditions require more SO2 than wines grown in less fertile conditions to remain stable.

SO2 both changes wine and simultaneously conserves it.  It’s almost as if the sulfites takes a snapshot of the wine in that moment.  Many top-flight producers choose to add it only at bottling, both to protect the wine and maximize the time it spends developing in its aging vessel.

Young wine without sulfites added changes more quickly both in bottle and at the table, which can be a double-edged sword.  If the fruit was exceptional and its fermentation healthy, you will experience a lively ride as it changes before your nose.  When fruit or fermentation are less than sublime, however, wine without any sulfites goes the way of common juice: it rots.  Fallen fruit, browning, and excessive volatile acidity (like apple cider vinegar), or even lactic acid bacteria run amok (like a dirty rodent cage, “mousey”) are common markers of deterioration.

Yes and no.  Less than one percent of the population has a sulfite allergy.  If you’re one of those unlucky few, you can’t drink any packaged fruit juice at all, so it’s no surprise about the old grape juice.  Bummer.

If you can drink fruit juice and eat dried apricots, why does conventionally farmed wine containing sulfites bother you?  It’s probably the pesticides in there with them.  Grapes don’t wash, so anything on them at harvest, including pesticide, is there at crush and in the juice that ferments into wine.  Many pesticides cause acute toxicity upon consumption.

They're actually beneficial most of the time, when used in moderation. However, high levels of sulfites often accompany the real problem: chemical farming. Chemicals and elevated sulfites compensate for overworked land and unhealthy fruit.

Conventional viticulture is about minimizing costs and maximizing profits.  Fertile, overcropped vineyards produce high pH juice that needs lots of sulphur to stabilize while their unhealthy crop is propped up with cost-efficient herbicide, fungicide, and insecticide that harm the land it's used on, the people that work it, and ultimately the people that drink it.

vineyard journal entries

recommended reading

the science of wine: from Vine to GlasS

Jamie Goode’s The Science of Wine is a classic. It’s an excellent introduction to everything that goes into wine, from the history of the vine to the juice in your glass, and how we perceive it. Rather than relay that Pinot Noir grows in Burgundy, he helps the reader understand vital knowledge applicable to every bottle, irrespective of where it’s from or the varietals that go into it. In a world where Good juice exists everywhere and famous regions often charge for their name, understanding the factors that determine quality is more important and useful than ever. His prose is engaging and digestible for beginners, but has a depth of information that’s sure to add to anyone’s knowledge. If you’re going to read one book about wine, this should be it.

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Clark Smith’s Postmodern Winemaking is fundamental for professionals and laypeople ready to take the next step in understanding fine wine. Though he taught at UC Davis and invented winemaking machinery, Clark's minimalist take on postmodern winemaking applies “intelligent observation and informed action” to gently guide juice from vineyard to bottle in its truest, most soulful expression with minimal intervention. Smith’s language is "as simple as possible, but no simpler, respecting both the lay reader’s intelligence and the need for clarity,” so be ready for some chemistry. Smith will provide readers with all the tools they need to connect what they know of vineyards and winemaking to understanding the details in their glass.