Sustainable, organic, biodynamic, natural, dry-farmed wines, and LEED wineries. The ultimate guide.

Sustainable wine. This sounds like a great thing to purchase, but what does sustainable wine mean?

It’s not quite the same as organic wine, biodynamic wine, natural wine, or dry-farmed wine. At its core, sustainable wine is wine that reduces the environmental impact of winemaking and helps to maintain an ecological balance.

Putting sustainability into practice takes hard work, money, and time. Wineries may need to prioritize sustainability over profits, but wineries everywhere are investing in these practices. Wineries go through various certifications involving third parties that verify their sustainability practices.

In general, these certifications assess how sustainable a winery's practices are by a combination of economic viability, environmental stewardship, and social equity. This is all to benefit the consumer so that they know the wine they are buying has minimal impact on the environment.

While there are differences across the various certifications of sustainable wines, they all ultimately move us towards a more sustainable future. Let's discuss what each of these certifications means for your wine.

What are the sustainable wine certifications, and what do they look at?

The various sustainability certifications in the wine industry are each a bit different based on the local environment’s needs. Each of the certifications requires a third party to verify that the winery complies. These are the most common certifications you'll encounter in the U.S.:

When you come across these labels, you can trust that they all cover some combination of:

  • Business ethics/social responsibility
  • Land use/habitat protection
  • Viticulture
  • Soil health
  • Water management
  • Waste management
  • Pest management
  • Energy efficiency
  • Material sourcing
  • Worker health/HR
  • Air quality
  • Community involvement

Generally, the wineries have to demonstrate how they are abiding by each standard and continually track improvements. These certifications often require renewal on an annual basis.

How does it compare to being certified organic?

USDA Organic is a standard that is monitored by the US Department of Agriculture and is used in many other food and beverage products. Organic farming is often considered to have less impact on the environment than typical farming.

Making USDA certified organic wine, like in other industries, is about prohibiting the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizer. In wine, you also have to make sure that both the grapes and additives (e.g., yeast and fining agents) are organic.

USDA Organic wine also cannot contain any GMOs or sulfites. This is a challenge for winemakers, since sulfur dioxide is the most common preservative in wine. Without the added sulfites, most wines wouldn’t age or cellar well.

For this reason, wineries came up with a new organic certification called “Made with Organic Grapes.” This certification has the same standards as the USDA organic certification, except wines can have up to 100 ppm of sulfites. So unless you’re allergic to sulfites (they’re not bad for most people), look for the “Made with Organic Grapes” label when shopping for an organic bottle.

Are biodynamic wines good for the environment?

While there's plenty of debate about the science behind biodynamic practices, studies have shown that biodynamic farming has positive effects on vineyard health and the environment. Becoming certified biodynamic can be even more demanding than other certifications.

The principle behind biodynamic farming is that everything in the universe is interconnected. Biodynamic viticulture has some seemingly odd requirements like timing planting with the lunar cycle and burying cow horns in the soil. But don't let this scare you away. Biodynamic farming also involves following sustainable and organic practices and yields consistently excellent quality wine.

You can explore all Demeter certified biodynamic wineries and vineyards in this handy list.

And what are natural wines?

Natural wines can also be put into the sustainability bucket to an extent. "Natural" is not a regulated term in wine, so it's hard to make a broad statement about what it means for a wine to be considered natural.

Natural wines are almost always made with native yeasts like those used in sourdough bread, sour beers, and kombucha. Natural wines also have no additives and little to no sulfites. In general, they are made by small wineries and almost always use sustainable, organic, or biodynamic grapes.

Is “dry farming” a category of sustainable wines?

Wineries that use dry-farming don’t use irrigation and rely on rainwater to water their grapes. These wineries can be thought of as sustainable from a water conservation perspective and often use other sustainable practices. Dry-farming is not practiced in every region due to concerns of the vines not getting enough water. However, many wineries successfully use dry-farming in places where there is water scarcity and produce quality wines.

Lastly, what’s LEED all about?

LEED or “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design” is a certification used for rating building systems. LEED provides a framework for healthy, highly-efficient, cost-saving buildings. The buildings use smart design and things like solar panels to reduce their environmental impact. This certification concerns buildings instead of agriculture and it’s a significant sustainability benchmark for wineries.

Vote for sustainability with your dollars

Each of these certification programs have its advantages and deficiencies. However, it’s our view that it’s good to support wineries with sustainable certifications. We can mitigate the degradation of our environment by buying wine from wineries that practice sustainability in the winemaking process.

Each wine region and winery has unique challenges and paths to becoming sustainable. So ask them about it next time you visit, or read more about their practices online. We make this easy for you to learn about their sustainable practices when you shop at Sip Wines.

For those interested, here are lists of wineries with the certifications we described above:

For those who want to dig deeper into each of the sustainable wine certifications, look at the various resources below.

Certified California Sustainable Vineyard & Winery (CCSW)

  • Certified by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance
  • Sustainable Business Strategy
  • Viticulture
  • Soil Management
  • Vineyard Water Management
  • Pest Management
  • Wine Quality
  • Ecosystem Management
  • Energy Efficiency
  • Winery Water Conservation and Quality
  • Material Handling
  • Solid Waste Reduction and Management
  • Environmentally Preferred Purchasing
  • Human Resources
  • Neighbors and Community
  • Air Quality

SIP Certified

  • Conservation and Enhancement of Biological Diversity
  • Vineyard Acquisition, Establishment and Management
  • Winery Facility Establishment and Management
  • Vineyard Soil Conservation and Surface Water Quality
  • Water Conservation and Quality
  • Energy Conservation and Efficiency
  • Pollution and Waste
  • Purchasing, Recycling, and Waste Reduction
  • Pest Management
  • Grape Sourcing and Fruit Quality
  • Social Equity
  • Continuing Education
  • Business Management
  • Year End Water and Nitrogen Use Reports

LIVE Certified (Winery, Vineyard)

Winery

  • Documentation and Training
  • Grapes and Enology
  • Energy Use and Greenhouse Gas Emissions
  • Materials Management
  • Water Management
  • Worker Health, Safety, and Benefits
  • Community Impact and Education

Vineyard

  • Farm Management, Documentation, and Training
  • Biodiversity and Ecological Infrastructure
  • Site Selection
  • Site Management
  • Varieties, Rootstock, and Planting
  • Plant Nutrition
  • Irrigation
  • Integrated Protection Measures for Farm Crops
  • Harvesting and Food Safety
  • Management Systems on Farms with Livestock
  • Worker Health and Safety

Salmon-Safe

  • In-stream Habitat Protection/Restoration
  • Riparian & Wetland Vegetation Protection/Restoration
  • Water Use Management
  • Erosion Prevention & Sediment Control
  • Integrated Pest Management & Water Quality Protection
  • Animal Management
  • Landscape-level Biological Diversity Enhancement

Certified Green (Lodi Rules)

  • Business Management
  • Human Resources Management
  • Ecosystem Management
  • Soil Management
  • Water Management
  • Pest Management


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