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How green is your wine?

Red, white or rose—any wine can be “green.” By green we don’t mean a St. Paddy’s promotion, but rather wines that are organic, biodynamic or sustainable. Virtually unknown a few years ago, today there are a growing number of eco-friendly wines. And many discerning customers appreciate that fact.

“Customers will ask me if the wine is organic,” says Paul Grieco, co-owner of Hearth, Terroir and Insieme restaurants in New York. “I think a lot more people are concerned about that today.”

The same guests who appreciate the heirloom tomatoes in their organic lettuce salad are candidates for ordering green wines—if you can get the message across. “It’s a challenge to get customers to realize that wine is an agricultural product,” concedes Chris Tavelli, co-owner of Yield Wine Bar in San Francisco, which specializes in eco-friendly wines. “But I think more people are starting to make the connection.”

Once customers make that connection, operators have to bring the wines to their attention.“The Passport to Wine list in the Primrose Room at The Broadmoor resort in Colorado Springs has a blurb that lets diners know that all the wines on that page are organic or biodynamic,” notes GM Timothy Baldwin. All 16 of the property’s restaurants will eventually earmark wines as eco-friendly.

What makes a wine green?

Organic grapes are grown without chemical fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides or pesticides. Sustainable farming is kinder to the land and reduces or eliminates irrigation, conserving water. Picking grapes manually rather than mechanically reduces the carbon footprint. Traditional farming methods–as opposed to industrial agriculture–give wines “terroir.” On the winemaking side, some vintners are eschewing additives such as sugar, enzymes, coloring, oak chips and tannin.
 
What’s the catch?

There is no universal definition of organic or biodynamic methods; regulations vary from country to country. There are also a number of competing certification agencies.

“It’s confusing,” admits Tavelli. He does a lot of homework to ensure that the wines he serves are indeed green, contacting vineyard managers, winemakers and certifying agencies. Virtually all of Yield’s 40 wines are available by the glass for $11 or under.

Wines can be variously labeled “organic,” “made from organically grown grapes” or “biodynamic wine” or “made from biodynamically grown grapes.” Biodynamic viticulture is a holistic approach developed by the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner in the early 20th century. It has since been embraced by winemakers in France and Spain, including Chapoutier in the Rhone and R. López de Heredia in Rioja.

A further complication is that wineries cherry pick from these methods, using as many as practical, but perhaps not enough for certification. “A lot of wineries don’t bother to get certified because it’s so much trouble,” adds Tavelli.

Thinking inside the box

Among the great wines on Hearth’s 38-page beverage menu, one page is devoted to wine in a box. That’s right, a one-liter Tetra Pak of Yellow + Blue wine from Mendoza, Argentina. Co-owner Paul Grieco appreciates the story it has to tell. After all, Yellow + Blue = Green.

The wine is made from organically grown hand-picked grapes. It boasts a much smaller footprint: Only 6 percent of the Tetra Pak is packaging, the rest is wine—versus 45 percent packaging for a glass bottle. It takes a third less energy to produce the Tetra Pak, compared to a bottle, and a great deal less space in landfills. “It’s super-duper eco-friendly,” says Grieco. He offers both a malbec red and a torrontes white. Priced at $35 for a liter, the wine is a good deal for customers, too.

Grieco compares box wine to screwtops. Once controversial, the closures are now widely accepted. Boxes are a tougher sell, admits Grieco. But he predicts their popularity will increase. “I don’t worry about the package, it’s what’s in the glass that counts,” he says.

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