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Shelton Vineyard
photo: N.C. Division of Tourism and Sports Development

Fruits of the earth

Making a case for sustainable wines

by Danielle Jackson


There’s a lot of interest in — and a lot of confusion about — what makes a wine sustainable in today’s increasingly eco-conscious world. Does organic mean sustainable, and vice versa? What does it mean to be biodynamic? After talking with some area experts in the field, we were able to answer these questions and more to help make our case for sustainable wine.


A defining term

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines organic as those products made using integrated cultural, biological and mechanical practices that foster the cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Through its National Organic Program, the USDA certifies products as organic and controls the organic standards, including those for wine grape growers, producers, and processors.


In the wine cellar, organic suggests minimal processing and no use of chemical additives like sulfites, which act as a preservative. Organic winemakers typically look at three important elements: the use of wild vs. cultured yeast, the filtration method and the use of sulfur dioxide.


The fundamental idea behind organic wine is that using grapes grown without chemical fertilizers, weed killers, insecticides, and other synthetic chemicals is better both for the planet and the wine drinker.


But just because something isn’t organic doesn’t mean it’s not sustainable in some way.


“Organic includes being eco-friendly, but you can be eco-friendly without being organic,” says Justin Furr, executive director of the North Carolina Wine & Grape Council in Raleigh.


According to Furr, eco-friendly refers to producing products in a way that benefits the environment.


“Companies want to reduce their carbon footprint, which they can do by using recycled packaging, solar power, bottles made from recycled glass or lighter bottles to lower shipping costs,” he notes. “They also can recycled used corks, use grape waste to make other products, have a reservoir or recycle water in their irrigation systems, or not use pesticides that might harm the land or life nearby.”


There are several wineries throughout the state incorporating such eco-friendly practices, like Sanders Ridge Vineyard & Winery in Boonville, which operates an organic farm and garden; Carolina Heritage Vineyards & Winery in Elkin, which is certified organic; and RayLen Vineyards in Mocksville, which uses solar panels for power.


“The general idea is that everything you do to the vineyard and winery for employees and the environment must have a positive outcome 10 years from now, including from a financial standpoint,” notes April Schlanger, co-owner of Sip … A Wine Store in Cary, which specializes in organic, sustainable and biodynamic wines. “You have to make all of these decisions and still be financially viable.”


According to Furr, being sustainable is just as important for the producer as it is for the end user.


“Many farmers, winemakers, and consumers believe that it’s safer and healthier without using most pesticides,” he says. “Consumers also tend to feel better about a product that’s being produced with an awareness toward the environment, and they feel like they’re helping the cause by supporting these eco-friendly products.”


A local authority

And while many winemakers throughout the state employ these environmentally friendly practices, some choose not to get certified.


“Many small growers are fully organic but can’t afford to get the annual certification, which is expensive, so they go under the designation of sustainable,” says Craig Heffley, owner of Wine Authorities in Durham.


The shop, which carries smaller production wines, designates whether a winery is conventional, sustainable, organic or biodynamic on its shelves. Heffley is pleased with the public’s growing taste for varieties that are more eco-friendly in nature.


“The shift toward using more organic products is important because consumers now realize that what they purchase can have a positive or negative impact on the environment,” he says.


“With the small producers we work with, wines are made using more labor in the vineyard to increase the quality of the grapes and by making the wine simply by using no additives,” Heffley adds. “This way, it’s like a farmers market product, which varies from year to year and shows the character of each vintage.”


A biodynamic twist

According to Schlanger, who owns Sip … A Wine Store with her husband, Josh, the biggest taste difference is apparent with biodynamic wines.


“You get more differences vintage to vintage because indigenous yeasts are used, so they’re not influencing a particular taste or flavor,” she says.


Biodynamic wine producers follow the lunar and astrological calendars when it comes to farming grapes. According to Schlanger, these growers also take into account certain properties within the soil, like herbs, flowers and manure.


“You are what you eat, and you are what you drink too,” she says. “Everything we put into our bodies is important and makes a difference.” 


Danielle Jackson is editor of Fifteen501, Wake Living and Triad Living magazines.


Drinking organic

Unfortunately, just because something says it’s organic doesn’t mean that it’s entirely organic. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program, organic alcoholic beverages — including wine — fall into the following categories:


  • 100 Percent Organic, which has all organic ingredients with no chemically added sulfites
  • Organic, which has at least 95 percent organic ingredients with no chemically added sulfites
  • Made With Organic Ingredients, which has at least 70 percent organic ingredients and might contain chemically added sulfites
  • Made With Some Organic Ingredients, which has less than 70 percent organic ingredients; in this case, growers can disclose only organic content in a nonconspicuous ingredients statement

For more information on organic alcoholic beverages, visit