Wine Watchwords for 2011

I see wine in your future!

My prediction for 2011, aside from all our First Vine customers, old and new, buying a ton of wine from us 😉 is that you’ll be hearing more about biodynamic wines and sustainable and biodynamic farming.

There’s a lot of confusion out there about biodynamics and sustainability, let alone organics.  I’m not an expert in any of these, but I thought I’d try and give you an idea what each of them is about.

We’ve talked about organic farming for wine grapes before, and there are differences in how the wines are produced depending on what country the grapes are grown in.  For you as a consumer, one important distinction is that organic production is government regulated, by and large, and you can find out what’s inside the bottle by the words used on the label which have strict definitions.   But what about sustainable and biodynamic farming?

“Sustainable” is a word used to describe a lot of things – especially energy production these days, with the annual international negotiations on global warming going on – and the idea is that you look at the larger picture, balancing economics, environmental health, and environmental justice.   The goal is to meet present needs without compromising the ability of people to meet those same needs in the future.  Producing just about anything requires the extraction of natural resources and processes that potentially damage human health and the environment.  And while society as a whole bears the cost, it’s not evenly distributed:  not everyone can afford not to live in areas with increased potential risk to their health or the environment.

Sustainable farming doesn’t necessarily mean solar panels in your vineyards. But you get extra points if you have them!

At its best, sustainable farming should minimize environmental damage, lead to better health for farm workers and consumers, use land sensibly, and produce good products.  I spoke with a wine labeling specialist at TTB, the U.S. government agency that enforces alcohol labeling regulations, and was told that it would be OK to mention sustainable farming on a wine label as long as the winery could document its sustainable practices.  Nothing on the label could be misleading, so any specific information on the label concerning a particular practice or membership in or certification by a particular organization would have to be true.  But unlike the organic designation, you would have to ask the winery just what they mean if they say sustainable on the label.

And biodynamic farming?  Like sustainable farming, there’s no one particular definition.   The general idea is to treat the farm sustainably but biodynamics – at least according to the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association — goes beyond sustainability with an element of mysticism.  I don’t say this dismissively, but BFGA talks about a “spiritual scientific” approach to farming.  “Agricultural judgments about health, what to do where, and when to do what, best succeed when we begin to rely on a certain wisdom gained through observation and experience and when we perceive consciously and concretely the phenomena that induce life itself.”

The back label says that the wine was made using biodynamic principles, but not exactly what those principles are, or if there were some non-biodynamic principles in there as well.

Not sure I get that entirely, though it’s a guiding principle rather than a strict prescription for particular action.  At best I guess you could interpret it as trying not to do harm, which would be a good thing, but not a definition.  There are some national and international organizations that certify biodynamic farming, but they don’t necessarily agree on what it is either, although the organizations list guidelines that don’t depend strictly on intuition or faith.  As for labeling, TTB allows producers to mention biodynamic farming.  According to TTB, “terms that refer to the environmental impact of the process or packaging rather than the product itself are usually acceptable,” although they can’t be misleading.  Producers have to be able to document anything on the label, including any certifications they have.   But you’d still have to ask the producer what he or she means by biodynamic if that’s all it says on the label.

So the big question is, does organic, sustainable, or biodynamic farming produce better wine?  At best, the jury is out on this one.  The problem is that there hasn’t been any rigorous scientific testing to get an answer.

Sorry, I meant the Judgment of Paris wine tasting…nice picture, though!

Why couldn’t we do another “Judgment of Paris” for this question?  As you may remember, the so-called Judgment of Paris was a blind wine tasting of great French and American wines and showed that California could make world-class wines.  Not difficult to put together, because the objective was fairly easy.  In the opinion of the tasters, the California wines were as good as, if not better than, the French wines tasted that particular day.

But if you want to show that a wine produced from grapes with organic/sustainable/biodynamic farming is better than one that isn’t, you have to eliminate the other variables.  So you can’t take a wine made by biodynamic farming at one vineyard and compare it (blind or not) to a wine made at another vineyard by different farming practices.  Why not?  Growers and wine producers (rightfully, to my mind) stress the importance of terroir and microclimates, so if those are important you’d have to make sure they (and everything else other than the specific farming methods under investigation) were exactly the same for both wines.  That means wine from grapes on the same plot at the same vineyard farmed by different means in the same year – and you’d have to have a lot of these plots to make a reasonable comparison.

That isn’t going to happen anytime soon.  You can imagine how difficult, expensive, and time-consuming it would be.  After all, no one would expect changes in farm practices to have an immediate effect, so they’d have to be in place for a number of years and no one could be quite sure it had been long enough to make a difference.  For example, who’s to know now if wine from a farm that just got its organic certification won’t be better in 2020 than in 2011?  And think of the other confounding factors.  It’s not difficult to imagine that there could be weather events that would obliterate any differences in the wines in particular years.  A particular winemaker may decide that certain farming practices result in better wine given his or her property and winemaking techniques.  But that’s not to say that the winemaker next door would come to the same conclusion.

So what’s a consumer to do?  Any wine you like is a good wine, regardless of how it’s made (assuming truth in labeling, that is.)  But if you find particular practices appealing, I recommend asking the producer or importer how the wines are produced and what farming methods are used.   We First Viners can tell you these things about our wines, and we’ll be adding this information to our website in the coming months.   As we’ve told you before, wine grapes often grow best on land that can’t be used for other crops.  You could argue that agriculture of any kind isn’t necessarily better use than fallow land, but at least there isn’t a question of crowding out a more beneficial farm product.  Our producers resist calling their wines by any particular growing designation.  They tell us that they farm the way their great-grandparents did, but there are different practices at different vineyards.   And we’ll tell you all about them.

Congratulations!  You made it through the post and (I assume) you’re still awake.  Now, on to the recipe!

If your December is like ours, you’re going to holiday parties and eating and drinking a lot.  Between work events and friends’ parties it’s way too much rich food.  So when you’re home on that rare weeknight and have to make food, it should be light, quick, and easy.  I realize my concept of “easy” isn’t the same as everyone else’s.  For example, I think making California Casserole or Turkey Tenderloin Salad with Crispy Sage is quick and easy.  You may also, but for a meal that will astonish with its simplicity, this is the one.

Many don’t like cooking fish because of the smell, but this recipe cooks so quickly our cats don’t even realize what I’m doing… Hello… Fish cooking… See what I mean?

When I really want something quick I get flounder or tilapia fillets, let them sit in lemon juice for a few minutes, then dry them, dust them with flour, and sauté them in butter.  They come out beautifully tender and lightly browned but not crispy.  Then I serve them on hamburger buns or Kaiser rolls as a fish sandwich (with tartar sauce, lettuce, and tomato if I can get it), over salad, or make a quick sauce (onion, wine, and pieces from the used-up lemon) and steam vegetables at the same time.  All in all, no more than 20 minutes from start to finish.  The fish is thin and cooks in no time;  so little time that your house won’t smell – believe me, Cy and I have cats and they don’t even know what I’m doing when I make this.   The key to making it all taste good is to season the flour.  I add the zest from the lemon to the flour along with dried oregano and garlic and onion powder.

Garlic and onion powder?  Not very haute cuisine of me to use those.  I know people whose lips would curl in horror at the mere thought.  But they’re on hand (you do have them around, right?) and they add nice flavor, believe it or not.  So break out the old jars and try it.  Open a bottle of our Quintet Sauvignon Blanc ($12, and a screw top cap so you don’t have to look for the corkscrew).   You’ll barely have time to put your slippers on before you feel that fancy party food melting away!

Bon Appetit!


Fast Fish Fillets Two Ways

Serves 2


12 to 16 ounces flounder or tilapia fillets cut into serving-size pieces

1 lemon

¾ cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon pepper

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon onion powder

1 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled

1 teaspoon sweet paprika

1-2 tablespoons butter

Combine the flour, salt, pepper, and spices in a glass pie plate or dish with sides.  Zest the lemon with a microplane and put the zest into the flour mixture.  Then, using your fingers, separate the zest and coat it all with the flour, then mix it all well and set aside.

Cut the lemon in half and juice it (set the used lemon pieces aside).  Put the juice in a plastic bag large enough to hold the fish fillets.  Then add the fish, close the bag, and gently turn the bag to coat the fish.  Let it sit for 5 minutes, then remove the fish.  Gently blot the fish pieces dry with paper towels.

Heat the butter over medium heat in a large nonstick skillet.  As it’s heating, begin to coat the fish:  place one piece at a time in the flour mixture, then turn it over.  When the butter stops foaming and before it browns, put each coated piece of fish in the pan.  Turn the heat up to medium-high and cook for about a minute and a half on each side.


2 hamburger buns or Kaiser rolls

Tartar sauce


Salt and pepper


Tomato slices

Pickle slices

Just before you start cooking the fish, split and begin toasting the buns or rolls.  While the fish cooks, mix equal amounts tartar sauce and mayo, adding some salt and pepper.  Spread the mixture on both cut sides of the buns, then put lettuce on the bottom half, then the fish, then tomato and pickle.  Top with the other bun half and serve immediately.

Fillets with quick pan sauce


¼ cup very finely minced onion

½ cup dry white wine

Pieces from squeezed lemon (see fish directions)

Salt and pepper

Just before you start cooking the fish, cut the used lemon halves into 4 pieces each.  When the fish is cooked, remove the fillets and put them on a plate.  Cover the plate loosely with foil and set aside.  If the pan is dry, add up to a tablespoon of butter and sauté the onion for two minutes, until soft.  Add the wine and lemon pieces, turn up the heat, and scrape the bottom of the pan with a nylon or wooden spatula to incorporate all the flavor bits.  Cook until there’s only about 3-4 tablespoons of liquid (not even a minute) and taste for salt and pepper.  Remove the lemon pieces.  Serve the sauce over the fillets.

This entry was posted in Biodynamic farming, Musings/Lectures/Rants, Organic farming, Sustainable farming, Tom Natan, wine delivery washington dc, Wine labeling and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Wine Watchwords for 2011

  1. Sue says:

    That’s all so interesting and gosh is it complicated!. That makes sense that it’s actually impossible to compare the different kind of wines. But isn’t it all in the tasting anyway? And a specific biodynamic wine could be just as good or better than a specific conventionally-produced one? I don’t know, I’m kind of feeling like some eggnog this weekend anyway…

    • firstvine says:

      In wino circles there is a big debate — since these farming methods are likely better for the environment shouldn’t they also make better wines? It’s true that one biodynamic wine could taste better than a different conventionally-produced wine, and vice-versa, given a particular terroir or microclimate. But there’s no evidence to say a priori that any of the methods makes better wine. And you’re right, it’s time for eggnog…and then some red wine!

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