Sunday, July 13, 2008

Certifiably government thinking

Recently, a blogger, Lyle Fass, brought my attention to an article by Food and Wine writer, Lettie Teague.

The article Teague wrote was rather confusing, and I don’t fully understand what point she was trying to make, but in one way or another, it concerned the concept of organic winemaking. I was left with the impression that she considers the idea of organic winemaking or so-called “green” winemaking just another marketing scam.

I generally agree that words like “organic, green, biodynamic, etc.” all have the potential for scamming. I’m also sure that marketers use the words if not to scam at least to bamboozle us. To put it bluntly: organic was long ago sullied, and green is beginning to get on my nerves.

How many of you know what exactly is meant by the concept of green winegrowing?

I’d bet that your answer is not the same as mine or as someone close to you. Marketing has already messed that concept up to a fine jumble of confusion—is it “green” to use wooden or cardboard boxes, trucks or trains for transportation, glass or cans for packaging, tractors or donkeys, and how green is it to cut trees down to make barrels or worse, to make wood chips?

Sure, I want the environment to suffer less, but I want that to be a joint effort among industry, government, and us. And to me, a major part of why we pay taxes is for protection against threats to our existence. I can’t think of greater threats than being attacked or fading away because of global meltdown.

I’m convinced that we are threatening our own existence with outmoded Industrial Revolutionary thinking and practices, and that means fossil fuels and petrochemicals.

Along with a better environment, I want both my food and my wine to have as little exposure to petrochemicals as is humanly possible. But I know that there is no easy fix—our culture is heavily invested in the chemistry of petroleum. No company illustrated that fact better than Dupont with its decades-old commercial message, “Better living through chemistry.”

The other day, while digging into my latest issue of Wines and Vines Magazine, I was slapped awake by my own incredulity. The article was about federal and local government requirements for certification for so-called organic grape growing.

The way things work, individuals who use petrochemical sprays on their vines must take classes and be certified, mainly because everyone recognizes the danger in using the chemicals. But nothing on a wine label is required to indicate whether or not there are potential dangers to the consumer.

Yet, when a wine is produced from grapes that were not grown in the “better living through chemistry" mold, giving us grapes that are pesticide and fungicide free, the wine producer must be certified by the authorities before the company is allowed to tell the consumer about its organic practices.

In other words, we aren’t warned when there might be danger in our wines, but we are warned when there probably isn’t any danger.

How about the following addition to the GOVERNMENT WARNING label:

The grapes for this wine were produced without petrochemicals, but don’t worry, these guys applied for and got certified for the privilege of doing things the natural way.
Rest assured that we’ll charge them a fee each time they do it right.
Copyright Thomas Pellechia
July 2008. All rights reserved.


  1. Her article stood out to me as the worst one I've ever read by her.

    Then again, a very experienced wine writer mentioning the cow horn thing when talking about biodynamics is stunning; that's simply FAIL on your Wine Journalism final exam.

    Btw, Lyle's original post (with link to Teague's article) is here:

  2. Thanks, Jack.

    I should have put Lyle's link in there, but then, I've been busy with things so mundane as trying to figure out how to keep the checkbook fully supplied so that the mortgage payments don't go the way of our economy--all the way down...

    As for wine writers, mainstream wine writing seems to have deteriorated completely into a miasma of criticisms at the expense of information.

  3. Thomas,

    FWIW, Lyle Fass' rant rivaled Lettie Teague's in terms of tortured logic. Both perspectives have degrees of validity couched in their nearly unavoidable simplifying assumptions.

    In my opinion (and not as an apologist for Teague), Lettie is serving what many of her readers wish to assimilate. In America's sound byte-challenged, unscientific mindset, how many of HER readers would probably yawn and turn the page had Lettie focused on biodynamically induced improvements in a grape's secondary metabolism profile, including a rarely discussed improvement in acid balance ? Get my drift ?

    Mere mention of the word "biochemistry" typically elicits a glazed over visceral reaction from many good citizens as well as wine lovers. Alas, the terms "organic" or even "chemical" confound many discussions outside the realm of chemistry. Those Henry Mencken quotes comes to mind once again !

  4. Jay,

    Of course, I agree with you. But as a journalist as well as an overall writer, I believe that we have an obligation not to know everything about which we write, but to at least try to learn what it is we about which we write.

    In the case of columnists who regularly cover one subject: there's no excuse for not studying the subject deeply and for taking short cuts because of a cultural deficiency in assimilation. It is possible to talk about technical matters without having to be technical.

    The real problem, as I view it, is that in the mainstream press, as well as in blogs, far too many self-proclaimed, often ill-informed (or lazy) critics opine about wine. The tragedy is that the ones in the mainstream are paid to do it.