Badass Beverage: THE EAST, Organic Wine And Biodynamics

In honor of Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij's THE EAST, our Badass Sommelier delves into organic wines. 

The East, Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij’s follow-up to 2011’s Sound of My Voice, is a very cleverly crafted eco-thriller. Marling stars as Sarah Moss, an agent for a private intelligence firm who is tasked with infiltrating the eco-terrorist group known as The East. To say more about the plot would be unfair, as half the fun of the film, like in any good spy film, is in seeing where it goes.

Marling, who co-wrote the script with director Batmanglij, is our lead and she gets to play alongside an excellent cast of characters portrayed by Ellen Page (bristling with barely-contained fury here, she’s all sharp edges and righteous indignation), scene-stealing Toby Kebbell, a quietly menacing Patricia Clarkson and most importantly Alexander Skarsgård as Benji, the charismatic leader of The East.

The film plays like reading Neal Stephenson’s Zodiac while watching a bunch of '70s paranoia thrillers, and as Marling is slowly and irrevocably seduced by the new life offered by The East, we find ourselves wondering who (or if) the villains of the piece really are.

There is a particularly haunting, beautiful scene set around a dinner table, all straitjackets and wooden spoons, that is the thesis statement of the entire film. The East opens this Friday in limited release, and it is well worth catching.

The East concerns itself with the environment, with characters practicing Freeganism and jams being executed against particularly damaging companies, like a refinery that is slowly poisoning a town’s water supply. Ever since I saw the movie, I have been thinking about how, culturally, we are becoming more aware and more proactive about how we treat our environment. It’s something that is becoming more and more important in the wine world, as well.

Wine Goes Green.

Organic practices in winemaking are certainly nothing new. After all, we have been making wine for much longer than we have been using chemical pesticides, or developing synthetic yeasts to homogenize every bottle of wine into tasting like yellow Mike & Ikes (looking at you, Georges Dubeouf). But winemaking methods have also changed, drastically, especially in the last hundred years.

Hell, they’ve changed dramatically in the last thirty years alone. The wine boom that began in the early '80s meant that wine was suddenly seen as a lucrative business, and lots of money was being invested as much in new vineyard sites as in new technology. Quickly, technologies such as the massive fermentation tanks used by Australia’s Yellowtail winery would become widespread.

But in recent years, a small and vocal number of winemakers have become more and more influential. These are people making what Alice Feiring refers to as “natural wines,” and they are some of the most exciting wines in the world today.

Now, a caveat. I do not think that an organic wine (whether it’s sustainable or biodynamic or what have you) is necessarily a better wine. But I do hold certain regard for the likes of the late Marcel Lapierre, who championed a natural and artisanal approach to winemaking, and whose legacy is carried out by his son Mathieu*. There is a certain level of artistry in making wine, in ultimately bottling an expression of a specific time and a specific place. And yes wine is delicious, and it gets us drunk (and let’s face it, that’s really the reason we make it), and it makes food taste better. But it can be more. And in the best cases - whether made by the likes of Sophie and Pierre Larmandier who are proponents of organic viticulture and whose Larmandier-Bernier Champagnes are some of the very best in the region, or by Gavin Newsom whose ultra-modern CADE Winery is quickly becoming the yardstick by which California wine is measured - wine is more than just a boozy drink. It is transcendent, in the very best sense of the word.

Anyway. You’ll see a lot of words get bandied around about wines that are organic, or sustainable, or biodynamic. Vineyards that are organically grown, making wine that is not necessarily organically produced. You’ll see some wines are Certified Organic, and some that label their practices accordingly, and some that just could not be bothered.

It can be a little confusing.

Here Is The News.

So there are a few differences. Let’s start at the top.

Organic practices in the vineyard and in the winery are pretty much like organic practices in your garden. Wineries that follow them don’t use chemical pesticides or fertilizers in the vineyards, and (and/or, if we’re being honest) don’t use synthetic yeasts to ferment the wine**, or add sugars to raise alcohol content, or filter and fine the wine using chemical methods. Some wineries, like those produced by the Drew Family Cellars in California, that don’t have their own land (or have vineyards too small to produce all of the wine that they want) will source grapes only from vineyards that grow their grapes organically.

Some parts of the world are naturally inclined towards organic practices, by virtue of the environment. It is very difficult to get modern machinery onto a vineyard along the Mosel river in Germany, for example, because of the extremely steep angle of the slopes on which the vines grow.

If you can get a tractor up there, then more power to you.

Some wineries and vineyards take this a step further and make wine that is made using sustainable methods. Sustainable agriculture follows the idea that the vineyard, in its entirety, is a living thing and that ultimately the good health of the vineyard will make better wine. This does not mean that the vines themselves are going to be given the optimal conditions to thrive. A vine has to struggle in order to ensure the grapes produced will make the best possible wine. Viticulturists seek steep slopes and inhospitable soil with good drainage so the vine will have to extend its roots deep into the earth for nutrients.

Try growing your peonies in that.

Sustainable vineyards will introduce beneficial insects, like ladybugs, to feed on the pests that affect grapevines. They will, for example, introduce natural pesticides and repellents, certain plants and animals that deter unwanted guests. And this philosophy will extend to every part of the winemaking process. Wineries will be powered by recyclable and solar energy, and the lees and other byproducts of winemaking will be used for fertilizer.

Taking sustainable practices even further are those making biodynamic wine and…guys, I’m not going to lie to you. Biodynamics are weird. They are, at best, pseudoscience. Some biodynamic practices involve planting and sowing based on the phases of the moon, and there is a whole Thing about burying a cow horn filled with manure and ground quartz. It all sounds more like spellcraft than agronomy.

But here’s the thing. It works. Biodynamic wines are outstanding. Now, I’m pretty sure (and this is pure armchair agriculture here, if we can allow for that to be a thing) that the quality of wines made using biodynamic practices has more to do with vintners paying closer attention to every step of the winemaking process than with channeling the life force of the universe into each grape, but it doesn’t matter. Look at the wines of Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, arguably the best estate in Alsace, itself one of the best and most interesting winegrowing regions in the world. The Zind-Humbrecht wines are, across the board, demonstrably higher in quality since they made the switch to biodynamic agriculture.

Wines made naturally, whether through biodynamic or sustainable or organic practices, are not necessarily better than wines made using the full spectrum of modern technology and winemaking techniques. But they are more interesting. They are often flawed, sometimes (unfortunately) irretrievably, but they are always honest.

I can get behind that.

*The Lapierre Morgon from Beaujolais is my very favorite wine. If you find a bottle do not hesitate to buy it.

**This is the most important part. The natural yeast that develops on the grapes in the vineyard has fed on the nutrients available in that specific terroir. When this yeast ferments the juice of the grape into wine, it is going to impart specific flavors and aromas that cannot be replicated. And yes this means that there will be inconsistencies from one vintage to the next, or from one plot to the next, or even from one bottle to the next, but it is an honest practice that best expresses the terroir, and that is good.