Empirical evidence: organic/biodynamic vit = more textured wines

A six-year comparison of organic, biodynamic, and “low-input” and “high-input” viticulture (three years of conversion, three of maintenance) recently came to fruition in South Australia, courtesy of researchers at the University of Adelaide. The full report is freely available here (and three cheers for research freely shared). It’s 73 pages long, but the conclusions are fairly simple. The most worthwhile among them: in blind trials, experienced wine professionals rated the organic and biodynamic wines more interesting than the conventional versions.

  • Soil health (nitrogen, phosphorus, organic carbon, microbe mass) was most strongly improved by compost, not by any particular management system. All four systems were tested with and without compost.
  • Compost had the single most dramatic positive effect on soil health, no matter the underlying management system.
  • Management system had no consistent effect on vine growth, berry weight, or berry composition.
  • Low-input, organic, and biodynamic alternatives yielded at 91%, 79%, and 70%, respectively, of the high-input condition.
  • Organic and biodynamic wines were more “textural, rich, vibrant, and spicy” than their conventional counterparts. (pH, TA, and color held constant; high-input wines were a bit higher in alcohol.)

Improved soil health with organic/biodynamic management has been demonstrated numerous times over, and so have the benefits of compost. This study was unusual in making compost a separate variable, showing that both organics/biodynamics and compost, separately, were beneficial. The upside here is the attitude, across the study, that conventional growers can benefit from organic techniques even without undertaking a full-on organic conversion.

The downside is that the “organic” and “biodynamic” management used in the comparison are weak compared with what many committed non-conventional growers undertake. How can you practice biodynamics without compost? “Biodynamic” here seems to have meant nothing more than adding the core preparations 500 and 501, a far, far cry from anything Demeter would certify as honest biodynamics. Even the organic system is pretty bare bones: weed control with mowing and cultivation instead of herbicides; no insecticides or pesticides other than copper. (The low-input condition pulled back on the insecticides and some of the pesticides.)

Talking about those lower yields, the researchers make an important point. Very little research has been done on organic or biodynamic cultivation methods. We could develop better techniques within those systems and preserve environment and fruit quality while improving yields. Many organic/biodynamic growers have surely worked out such techniques on a local scale, which leaves a role for scientists to listen to what they’re doing, identify why it works and how/whether it can be generalized more broadly. Some environmentally conscious wine people are happy to pour their big pharma money (or whatever it might be) into projects they believe in with no thought for financial return, but most are trying to support their families as well as their values. Sharing successful organic/biodynamic techniques — say, for weed management, which was the biggest issue in this study — developing them scientifically, and stamping them with a scientific seal of approval so that they’re not dismissed as just those quacky organic people, will help conventional growers improve their weed management tactics, too. Likely, too, with economic benefits you can appreciate even if you honestly don’t care about trashing the environment for short-term gains.

The researchers should have made another point about those yields. Are the high-input yields a reasonable benchmark? Should we buy short-term gains with long-term environmental and social damage? If your business isn’t “sustainable” without using chemical warfare to eke every last grape out of the earth, then perhaps you need to reconsider your business practices in other areas. It comes back to the old resurrecting dinosaurs argument. Just because we have the technology to do something doesn’t mean we should. The wine might even be more interesting.


For organic wine, sharing information isn’t always better

Premise one: Organic labeling laws are complicated, non-intuitive, vary from country to country, and are disputed more or less everywhere.

Premise two: When Joni Mitchell sings “give me spots on my apples, but leave me the birds and the bees,” not everyone agrees with her, and some people think the spotty apples aren’t going to be very good.*

Warrant: Because consumers are confused by what “organic” means and because they associate “organic” with forlorn and spotty produce from the non-local and meagre selection at the grocery store, some may think that wine labeled “organic” is sub-par.

The most useful part of a recently published study on “eco-labeling” may not be the data, but the way the authors explain why it’s worth talking about in the first place. They explain “eco-labeling” as being about alleviating information asymmetry between producers and consumers, which is another way of saying that labelling is about trying to share what we know. And with wine, knowledge often goes along with enthusiasm.

Organic wine marketing ends up singing the same song I hear so often from folk in science communication: I know that my science is phenomenally exciting/important; I want to tell everyone else about it; why can’t I get everyone else as excited as I am? All of that excitement and deep caring makes it easy to fall into the solipsistic trap of telling everyone else all of the great details about what I do so that they can know how great it is, too.

Delmas and Lessem’s is only the most recent in a line of studies saying that more sharing isn’t always better. In an online simulated buying exercise, they asked potential wine buyers to choose which bottle they’d prefer to buy amongst a few invented-but-likely California cabernet sauvignons** with labels indicating “organic wine,” “made with organic grapes,” or none of the above. The wines were, in different versions of the exercise, from Napa or from Lodi and priced at $8, $15, $22, or $29.*** Their survey respondents were mostly Californian and younger, better educated, and a good deal better off than national averages, but so are a lot of potential wine consumers and what they found is consistent with previous studies.

A third of their respondents buy organic products on at least half of their shopping trips and 20% said they belonged to some kind of pro-environmental organization, and these folk were more inclined to prefer the organic-labeled wines. But better educated and wealthier respondents were more inclined to choose wines without organic designations. Lower-priced Lodi wines with organic on the label faired better than higher-priced “organic” or “made with organic grapes” Napa wines.

All of this is to say that this study is one more in a pile saying that consumers — even well-heeled Whole Foods-shopping eco-conscious Californian consumers — probably still think organic wine is wan and spotty. If you’re trying to sell premium wine and your environmental conscious leads you down the organic route, more information isn’t necessarily better.

The problem with marketing studies is that despite all their schmancy formulae and big tables full of numbers and tests for statistical significance, they don’t tell us much. Did people who didn’t prefer organic wines (especially the regular organics buyers) avoid them because of past experiences with icky low-quality bottles? Because they’ve heard stories about other people’s experiences with icky low-quality bottles? Because they know the details of the sulfite controversy, or just assume that organic wine isn’t as good, or because they think organic wines are overpriced or have cooties? If we can get those marketing folk to spend some of their time talking to people instead of just crunching numbers, organic supporters will have a better song to sing when we come back to those labeling disputes.


*Writes with sadness the person who’s been happily munching spotty apples from a nearby feral apple tree  that easily beat out any of the overhybridized, artificially sweet specimens from the grocery store or even the farmers’ market.

**Amusingly enough, their likely-sounding fictitious wine brands were common French surnames. Because, sensibly enough, consumers expect Californian wines to look and sound French. Really?

***Though how you simulate a believable $8 Napa cab, organic or not, is beyond me. Have I mentioned my qualms with marketing studies? This study makes a lot of assumptions that I find unwarranted, but none that substantially affect the core findings of their survey.