Sunday, June 11, 2017

A Moment of Sunshine Amid the Organic Void: Lunch with Susan Lin, Master of Wine Aspirant

A few weeks ago I had the kind of day all writers dream of - when an accomplished expert in your field - like Susan Lin of Belmont Wine Exchange - pays you the ultimate compliment of inviting you to meet, and arriving with a printout all of your published articles, with underlinings throughout and handwritten notes in the margins. (The biggest article - featured in the photo - is my Wines & Vines oped on the Organic Opportunity which you can read here.) The marks of a reader who has thoroughly consumed the material.

A wine professional going for her Master of Wine, Lin's day job is selling rare wines to wine directors and collectors, among others. She already has a number of impressive wine credentials in the field of wine education, and is currently working on getting the wine world's most impressive credential - the MW.

Back story: we'd met at a winery luncheon event for a French winery with organic vines.

At the event, the topic of organic came up and in passing Susan mentioned that she had heard a presentation from the Sonoma sustainability program folks recently at an event for those who were studying for the Master of Wine.

I told her the sustainability program was not all that it was cracked up to be. And it was a lot of marketing hype, that had some real merit but the benefits were conveniently overstated for the purposes of wine marketing. Sustainability programs have done little or nothing to reduce the use of harmful chemicals in vineyards.

In fact, according to a recent survey, more than 40% of consumers think sustainable means organic, which is not lost upon sustainability marketers, who do little to educate the public on the differences.

"I want to know more," Lin said. We kept in touch, and eventually arranged to have lunch in downtown SF.

We had a wonderful conversation, as she pummeled me with questions, while I ate steak and frites. At the end of the meal, she insisted on picking up the tab, and we talked excitedly of wine tastings we hoped to do in the future.

A writer's dream? Absolutely. But it also had meaning in a broader sense.

As I contemplated the lunch later, I began to wonder. Why should an MW candidate have to seek out  a writer and read just a few articles on the topic of organic and Biodynamic wines? Why was it that the entire field of wine education skips this core topic?

How is it that the encyclopedic knowledge standards wine experts are called upon to master - what soil types are in the Jura, what are the various designations of Rioja, what are the various sub appellations of Chianti - are not applied to the most fundamental facts of vineyards?

"Until I read this article, I had never heard of glyphosate," Lin told me.

We in organic circles (and academia) know that pesticides/fungicides/herbicides affect vine growth and grape flavors.

In the industry, a few people know.

Kermit Lynch says he can taste the difference between a conventionally grown grape, an organic grape and a Biodynamic grape from a vineyard he's an investor in in France.

Jancis Robinson told me over lunch in Napa that she can taste when a wine is Biodynamically grown.

So why aren't these topics covered?

It's a question only the industry can answer.

The Organic Void

Today, I can say perhaps it's some kind of progress to note that the industry has a blind spot - let's call it the Organic Void. What can be done about it?

Sommeliers, wine educators and Masters of Wine - do you think can do better?

Let's raise the bar and include curricula on organic farming, Biodynamic methods, and wine certification types for organically and Biodynamically grown wines in your professional education circles. There are experts, like me, who are more than happy to create educational materials and come speak on these topics.

There are very big reasons why organically grown wine - just like organically grown food - matters and how the wine choices you make impact wine country residents, workers and consumers.

Do you really want to support the use of 60,000 pounds of glyphosate each year in Sonoma? 30,000 pounds in Napa? Do you really think Pinot Noir has to be raised with fungicides? (There are dozens of elite producers who don't).

I have found through research over the last 7 years that there are organically grown wines that match the full spectrum of price point and quality for any conventionally grown wine on the market today. People just don't know where to find these wines and how to buy them. Or they still harbor suspicions that organically grown wines mean Frey at Whole Foods. (Frey and no added sulfite wines represent a very small percentage of the organically grown wines available in the U.S. today).

And why do wine directors, wine educators and somms fall for the wine industry's sustainability marketing programs, which highlight energy and water savings (good but also relevant to the bottom line) while obscuring the negative impacts of chemical farming (and its increased use of water in the first place)? Buyers beware.

You - in the wine industry, restaurant business and as consumers - have the power to bring your values to the marketplace. Are you using your power for good?

What steps do you think we should take to help broaden wine knowledge so that the understanding of organic viticulture is part and parcel of a thorough wine education?

In the meantime, I'd like to salute Susan Lin - for being curious. May this spirit of curiosity spread to her peers - and all wine lovers.

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