Is ethical wine even possible?

By / Wine + Drinks / January 10th, 2020 / 18

The current state of the world is enough to drive you to drink. But before you reach for a bottle, you might want to give your choice some consideration beyond price, label or point score. Is that wine part of the problem or part of the solution? While saving the world with a glass of wine is debatable, you can support producers who are aligned with your code of ethics and trying to make changes for the better.

Environmental anxiety looms larger than ever. For a long time, organic has been perceived as the “green” choice — healthier for the planet as well as people. But organic is only one piece of the puzzle. Fundamentally, it prohibits synthetic fungicides, pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers in the vineyard as well as genetically modified organisms. “Organic is, in my mind, largely a decalogue of do’s and don’ts, and focuses on chemical usage,” explains Ted Casteel, co-owner and vineyard manager at Bethel Heights Vineyard in Oregon.

For some producers, organic viticulture is just a point of departure. Lesser-known biodynamic viticulture starts with the same guiding principles but the goal is to create a self-sustaining ecosystem. While biodynamic practices such as burying cow horns filled with manure in the soil and spraying special preparations in accordance with the moon cycle may seem esoteric, the holistic approach takes the entire farm into consideration not just the health of the soil. Demeter and Biodyvin are the two official certifications for biodynamic wines.

The tenets of organic farming feed into other certifications like Salmon-Safe in the Pacific Northwest. In this instance, the emphasis is on the impact farming has on surrounding fish habitat. It is particularly concerned with pesticides that can have a negative impact on aquatic life and works to protect water quality and manage runoff.

Crucially, organic agriculture is not a panacea for all environmental threats. Farming organically doesn’t govern water management or waste management. Nor does it measure the size of a winery’s carbon footprint — surely a fundamental factor of a wine’s ethicality — and, in fact, can increase it. (See Michelle Bouffard’s article “Reduce your carbon footprint one glass at a time“). And organic is not always considered the best solution in a given area. Attention has therefore shifted to sustainability, with organic practices being part of that — or not. Justin Seidenfeld is director of winemaking at Rodney Strong Vineyards, Sonoma County’s first carbon-neutral winey. He describes the company’s approach as having the lowest impact possible. “If we can dry farm and go organic, we do. But if necessary, we will use systemic fungicide,” he states.

Sustainability is a broad word, open to interpretation and susceptible to greenwashing. Ideally, it considers the bigger picture and the long-term viability of practices. While it may permit chemicals, it espouses rational use and encourages alternative methods to control pests, diseases and weeds. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO)’s 14001 and 14004 certifications give some definition and parameters to sustainability with the overall aim of reducing resource use. There are numerous other sustainable certifications that range from country-wide one like Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand to the Pacific Northwest’s LIVE, which stands for Low Input Viticulture and Enology.

A growing response to the global climate crisis is people adopting a vegan diet. According to GlobalData, there was a 600 percent increase in veganism in the US between 2014 to 2017. It may come as a surprise that animal ingredients or by-products have anything to do with winemaking but indeed egg whites, milk, fish bladders and gelatin made from animal protein are all ingredients of various fining agents. Fining is an optional winemaking process that removes harsh tannins, undesired colours, off-flavours and any solids in suspension that may throw a haze. It is widely practised as we demand our wine to be clear and bright rather than cloudy. While fining agents precipitate out, there is no absolute guarantee that trace elements don’t remain. Therefore, vegan-friendly wines must either be fined with non-animal fining agents, such as bentonite (clay mined from volcanic ash), or not fined at all.

While vegan certification like American-based BevVeg!, Canadian-based VegeCert and Europe’s V-label certify the winemaking process, they don’t regulate farming techniques. This means that animals and animal by-products may be used in the vineyard, such as animal manure to fertilize a vineyard. Carissa Kranz, CEO and founder of BevVeg! International would like to see a certification for soil as well, she says that “in order to affect change in the world, we need to meet the world where the world is now.” In her words, “that means a practical solution to living with the smallest footprint possible on this planet, and patience with the evolution of that process.” Animal rights activist Sebastiano Cossia Castiglioni at Querciabella in Chianti Classico takes matters into his own hands. Beyond vegan certification, he has developed a plant-based approach to biodynamics that eschews any animal products — both in the vineyard and in the cellar.

The other — not insignificant — element of ethical wine is the human factor. The wine industry isn’t immune to inequalities and injustices, which was most palpably demonstrated in South Africa under apartheid. Today, South Africa is the largest producer of Fairtrade wine, which is designed to protect workers’ rights and help farmers get a fair price for their crops. In 2012, South Africa’s Wine Industry Ethical Trade Association launched its ethical seal to address unfair labour practices that continue to persist.

Ultimately, it is the producers that go above and beyond the call of duty that stand out. With a Master’s in environmental ethics, Johan Reyneke in Stellenbosch has been called the “intentional farmer.” His Cornerstone project funds homeownership for his workers (rather than just providing free housing) and education for their children. Similarly, at the Catena [Zapata?] winery in Argentina, employees are offered language and various skill-building classes, giving them the opportunity to advance in their careers.

Trying to rate and certify ethics is not a straightforward task. However, the non-profit B Lab organization is making an attempt through its B Corp Certification. The “B” is short for “beneficial” and its foundation is “people using business as a force for good.” It boasts accreditation across diverse industries around the global and Certified B Corps include Stumptown Coffee Roasters, outdoor apparel company Patagonia and publicly traded Brazilian cosmetics firm Natura.

Okanagan’s Summerhill Winery was the first winery in Canada to apply for and achieve B Corp Certification. CEO Ezra Cipes calls the standards “rigorous.” Points are awarded in categories broken down into business governance, environment, employees, community and customers. It looks at everything from the hiring process, wages and diversity in the workplace to charitable giving, waste management systems and transparency throughout the entire supply chain. Out of a total of 200, 80 points is the passing mark. Summerhill’s high score for environmental practices gained them 85 points. Most importantly, “it shows us where we can improve,” declares Cipes. “Through the assessment, you understand the rigour of what it takes to score points.” Think of it as the new 200-point scale — for ethicalness that is.

Wading through all the various certifications is no easy task. On the one hand, they can serve to communicate a winery’s practices. However, it is important to look at who the certifying body is and what exactly it is certifying. Furthermore, a winery’s eco-friendly philosophy in a particular area may not necessarily inform all decisions. After visiting an organic vineyard in Basilicata, I was left with a slightly bitter taste in my mouth when the wine was served from one of heaviest bottles I have ever tried to lift. I could almost see the greenhouse gas emissions increasing before my very eyes.

And just because a wine doesn’t brandish a particular certification, doesn’t mean that it is any less “ethical” than the next. For instance, Maison Marchand-Tawse in Burgundy is in the process of organic certification but won’t use logo. “We don’t want it to be a marketing tool,” says winemaker Thomas Dinel.

Finally, certification, and whatever ethical practices are employed, doesn’t guarantee that the wine will be any good. Ultimately, we drink wine for pleasure so quality is non-negotiable. Thankfully, there are numerous ethically minded producers making great wine. It may mean spending a bit more but there is nothing morally wrong with drinking less but better.

Summerhill Cipes Brut NV, VQA Okanagan Valley ($27)

Besides being Demeter certified for grape growing and producing certified organic wine, Summerhill has also been awarded gold for green tourism. A blend of Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc, this traditional method sparkler is fresh, mouth-cleansing and replete with crisp orchard fruit.

Reyneke Chenin Blanc 2016, Stellenbosch, South Africa ($30)

Crafted from biodynamically farmed grapes, this single-vineyard Chenin Blanc is stunning. Stony, minerally and tight, it offers great energy and power with a lovely tactile texture. Hints of orange and honey linger on the finish.

Emiliana Coyam 2015, Colchagua Valley, Chile ($30)

Emiliana has been organic for over 20 years, carbon neutral since 2008 and is considered a pioneer of biodynamics in Chile. And the wine is also certified vegan. Syrah with a healthy dose of Carménère and Cab along with a whole host of other red grapes. Exuberant and full, it is laden with dark black fruit and complemented by intriguing floral and cedar undertones.

Avignonesi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG 2015, Italy ($45)

Certified vegan and organic wine. The property is also in conversion to biodynamic viticulture based on owner Virginie Saverys’ belief in homeopathic solutions and a desire to safeguard the health of her workers. A polished and sophisticated Sangiovese with dense wild-forest berries, tobacco and tea.

Querciabella Chianti Classico DOCG 2015, Italy ($40)

Made from biodynamically grown grapes without any animal products or by-products, this vegan-certified Chianti Classico is subtly toasty with ripe red cherry, evocative Mediterranean herbs and cinnamon carried by fine powdery tannins.

Cono Sur Organic Pinot Noir 2018, Chile ($17)

Through economies of scale, this large producer is able to produce affordable, good-value organic wines while reducing energy use and neutralizing its greenhouse gas emissions. The Pinot Noir is juicy and straightforward with bright strawberry fruit. It is also a Certified Sustainable Wine of Chile.

Bethel Heights Vineyard Estate Pinot Noir 2016, Eola-Amity Hills, Oregon ($45)

Owner Ted Casteel is one of founding members of LIVE, which certifies sustainability in the vineyard and winery. The wines are Salmon-Safe with no herbicides since 2009 and solar panels provide 60 percent of the winery’s energy needs. A gorgeous Pinot Noir — the epitome of elegance. Silky smooth with black cherry and heady truffle nuances.


Michaela Morris is a freelance wine writer, educator and presenter. Though based in Vancouver, she sits on wine panels and judges both locally and abroad. Michaela holds the WSET Diploma, is a Vinitaly International Academy Certified Italian Wine Expert. She balances out all of the eating and drinking with yoga, and occasionally cheats on wine with a Negroni.

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