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The tasting room at California's Honig Vineyards, a leading sustainable wine producer.

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Along with "local" and "organic," "sustainable" has become a powerful force in the market today, from food and energy to clothing and cars. But what does this relatively new school of thought mean for the wine world?

Sustainable wine-growing employs practices that are environmentally sensitive, responsive to the needs of the larger community, and economically feasible. For modern viticulture there are several routes to sustainability. Some are fairly well-known, like organic farming; others are less familiar, like biodynamic viticulture. All strive to protect and preserve the natural environments that nurture great vintages.

A Wine By Any Other Name

Many distinct methodologies and practices fall under the broad umbrella of "sustainable" wine making, which sometimes contributes to confusion among consumers. Understanding the distinctions between commonly used terms offers an important lesson in the prevailing philosophies at work in the wine world today.

  • Organic Wine: Wine that bears the USDA Organic seal has achieved the highest level of organic certification. Growers that have been awarded this designation do not use synthetic pesticides or fertilizers and instead implement crop rotation, natural manure, compost, and biological pest control. These wines may be either "100% Organic" or "Organic"--the latter indicates that wine contains a minimum of 95% organic ingredients. These wines contain no added sulfites, a common preservative. Organic
  • Made With Organic Grapes: These label indicates that the wine contains at least 70% organic ingredients, and cannot bear the USDA Organic seal as a result. These wines may contain added sulfites.
  • Biodynamic Wine: Biodynamic viticulture builds on the best practices of organic wine growing and extends those practices even further. No genetically modified organisms (GMO) may be used, and 10% of a vineyard's acreage must encourage biodiversity. More expansively, this school of thought strives to see to the vineyard as a single ecological unit of interdependent flora and fauna. Synthetic additives are entirely verboten in biodynamic wine, although naturally-occurring sulfites are allowed.
  • Salmon-Safe Wine: Proposed over a decade ago by the Pacific Rivers Council, an environmental advocacy non-profit based in Portland, Oregon, Salmon-Safe certification centers on reducing runoff of harmful pesticides and pollutants into local waterways. More than 200 vineyards, predominantly in Oregon and Washington, have since pledged their participation.

To achieve any of these eco-friendly distinctions is no small task. Typically, a wine producer must meet numerous agricultural and wine-making prerequisites, undergo rigorous third-party audits, and demonstrate a firm commitment to improving their sustainable practices over time.

What It Means For Consumers
First and foremost, sustainable wines offer the consumer an opportunity to drink responsibly by supporting businesses that support the health of the environment. Drinkers with sulfite allergies will also appreciate sustainable wine's low sulfite levels. This lack of added sulfites though does decrease the shelf life of sustainable wine. It's best to enjoy sustainable wines within a few years of release as cellaring can be risky.

Putting Principle Into Practice
One vineyard that has fully embraced sustainable wine-making is Honig Vineyard & Winery, a family-owned business with roots in Napa County dating back to 1964. Proprietor Michael Honig has led the way on sharing and encouraging sustainable practices, and even helped write the "Code of Sustainable Practices" for the Wine Institute, an advocacy group for California winegrowers.

Another paragon of sustainable wine-making is Groot Parys Estates, an 80-hectare vineyard in Paarl, South Africa that has received international accreditation for its organic practices. Founded by Dutch immigrants, Groot Parys Estates is part of a core group of winemakers that is pioneering the cultivation of sustainable wines in South Africa.

At the end of the day, these best practices must ultimately serve the consumer. And in these two cases, they absolutely do: Honig's 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon was awarded 92 points from Wine Spectator and recently named one of the "Top 100 Wines of 2012."