Natural Wine Part 2: Whither go the Swiss?

In Natural Wine Part 1: What Is It?—published in this blog on January 5, 2016 (see Menu)— I explored the current understanding of the term “natural” wine and the confusing lack of defining standards. Even though consensus is elusive—and maybe that’s how it should be—there is one thing everyone agrees on: a “natural” wine is made from organically grown grapes. Period. With that as a backdrop Part 2 explores the state of current affairs in Switzerland. (The image above is the amazing Domaine de Beudon, a pioneering biodynamic vineyard and winery outside of Fully in the Valais. It is intended to demonstrate the extremes some accept to make natural wine.)

In the summer of 2014 winegrowers in Switzerland resumed their campaign against powdery mildew and bunch rot by breaking out a newly authorized, synthetically derived fungicide called “Moon Privilege“, relegating the comparatively benign and time tested treatments of the past to the sidelines. Initial spraying began in August 2014 without incident but in June the following year vignerons began to realize that something was amiss: vine leaves began to curl up and die, while misshapen clusters of berries formed but stopped growing. Quick to respond, the Swiss Federal Office of Agriculture withdrew its approval of the fungicide and Bayer AG, the manufacturer, recommended against its continued use in vineyards. All in all more than 900 Swiss winegrowers—more than half of the industry—were affected, losing 5% of the total crop or six million bottles. (2015 yields were actually 15% below the decade average, indicating that some valid claims lapsed—perhaps some growers were too embarrassed to file a claim?) Stunningly, but without admitting fault, Bayer negotiated reparations with winegrowers in Switzerland to the tune of CHF 50 million.

Meanwhile, across the border in France, the spiritual home of the natural wine movement, the multi-national chemical companies Bayer, Syngenta, Monsanto and Dow collectively sold more than 65,000 tons of pesticides in 2014 making it the number one market for pesticides in Europe. The extent of France’s pesticide addiction was first brought to light in a 2013 article in Modern Farmer magazine and most recently amplified in a documentary on France 2 television (broadcast February 2, 2016) titled Produits Chimiques: Nos Enfants en Danger. In it the winegrowing regions of Bordeaux and Champagne are outed as the biggest users of the most dangerous pesticides and because of their haphazard application, the health of workers, the public and children in nearby suburban schools was endangered. On a personal note, the specter of residual pesticides lurking deep within the wine and the fabled terroir of the Gironde is another serious disincentive for me to revisit this hotbed of otherwise monotonous wine.

The bottom line—two countries, two stories, one inescapable conclusion: the commitment to the production of clean, natural wine and truly sustainable farming practices is still a dream.

Such revelations, while disturbing, are not a surprise. Wine is big business in France and throughout western Europe. The barriers to entry are high and getting higher. Pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, mechanization, laboratory rectification and additives are net cost savers; they incrementally drive up the cost of goods but they also substantially lower the cost of labor, enable massive economies of scale and guarantee a marketable product year after year. It’s no accident that the regions of Bordeaux and Champagne are the biggest offenders. Multi-national conglomerate ownership is focused there and these forces understand that leveraging the centuries of goodwill their takeovers have accrued is good business. Conglomerates that invest in vineyards do so with quarterly results in mind and because of technology and chemistry the production of consistently monotonous wine is now scalable and repeatable. These are the prerequisite steps necessary to build or maintain a successful brand and the building of brands is the ultimate imprimatur of corporate success and stewardship. Under these circumstances it’s no wonder that the natural wine movement is most ardent in France with its vulnerable national patrimony at stake.

No such excuse in Switzerland. Corporate ownership is insignificant and small family farms are the norm. That’s why the high number of synthetic chemical users here is so disappointing. 50% of the Swiss industry is a high number when one considers that this was one single fungicide used in a single season. It causes me to wonder what other choices are made for expediency. Environmental commitment and product integrity require more. Shouldn’t the phrase “Made in Switzerland” refer to a quality that goes above and beyond the ordinary?

This is not to condemn the Swiss outright as careless stewards of their land. Small family wineries are embracing organic and biodynamic methodologies and seeing positive results in their vineyards and in the bottle. Larger concerns are devoting individual parcels to experimentation and seeing similar results. These are positive developments but they are occurring at a glacial pace and often without the proper support of governments and local agencies. The level of winemaking in Switzerland is on a par with the best in the world but no discussion of natural wine production can proceed without a commitment to sound, sustainable viticulture. If the Swiss are to offer their wines to the world, and with increasing frequency they are, isn’t it best to do so with integrity, sustainability and good stewardship as its calling card? It’s the wave of the future and will be a huge advantage in the world’s marketplace going forward.

Production Intégrée (PI): The Current Standard

In agriculture you are either conventional or in some form sustainable. Conventional agriculture allows for anything that is not explicitly forbidden as a matter of public policy or safety. Its mandate is to derive the maximum yield per hectare as cost efficiently as possible. The sustainable model seems to go slightly further. Its philosophy of production focuses upon three principles: economic viability, environmental responsibility and employee and public welfare; a fourth principle of accountability would have been useful here. At its extreme end are the fraternal twins organic and biodynamic agriculture neither of which harbor any ambiguity about what is and is not allowed: no synthetic chemicals, period. What’s left in the middle is a mess.

Reasoned agriculture or Agriculture Raisonée (AR) as it’s known in France and Production Intégrée (PI) as it’s known in Switzerland is the industry’s attempt to humanize conventional agriculture. Both enumerate a set of suggested practices that to the layman feel good but in the end fall short of real commitment because they require nothing more than good faith effort. As Antoine Lepetite-de la Bigne so bluntly states in his book What’s So Special About Biodynamic Wine?:

“Let us be loud and clear: reasoned agriculture, which uses agrochemicals less irrationally and demonstrates slightly more awareness of their drawbacks, is nothing more than conventional agriculture.”

He’s right. Switzerland’s “Moon Privilege” scandal is direct evidence. By some estimates 80% of the Swiss vignobles claim to adhere to the PI methodology. If this is so then a commitment to reasoned agriculture that results in such widespread synthetic chemical use amounts to no commitment at all. Admittedly, Swiss vineyards are notoriously difficult to work, especially in the Lavaux and the Valais, but that hasn’t deterred some organic and biodynamic growers there from responding to the challenge. There are several growers, some highlighted in these pages, who have made a go of it and are producing stellar, uncompromising wines. Difficult terrain in Bierzo, Priorato, Alto Adige, the Mosel and elsewhere in Europe has proven no impediment to the most committed organic and biodynamic growers, nor should it to the industrious Swiss.

The Future

As I visit growers and winemakers in my new home of Switzerland I am awestruck by the history and traditions of its wine industry. The beauty of its wine lands is second to none and the range and diversity of its wines is thrilling, especially to one so newly acquainted. It is also gratifying to see the next generation of vignerons take its place at the table, newly armed with training, life-long contacts and influences from around the globe. They bring back from their travels an infectious enthusiasm for old-school ways and natural methods. Their preferences bode well for the future and fortunes of organic and biodynamic viticulture and their commitment is essential. Their voices and actions must be loud and clear and with the proper help and encouragement, they will succeed.

The Swiss government has a role to play here. Recent federal forays into traditional areas of cantonal authority regarding wine production and labeling is currently sparking industry debate. It appears that some uniformity and consistent regulation on a national scale is at hand. Why not at this point in the discussion attempt to encourage the conversion of PI viticulture into organic or biodynamic methodologies through government assistance and subsidies. Agriculture in Switzerland is already subsidized to a large degree. A program to limit government’s financial exposure to the family wine enterprise could be tailored to the first three years of conversion—these are the years of lower yields and increased costs for growers—afterwards the commitment ends and the benefits take hold. The opportunity for growers to convert remains an option for ten years during which time a tax on synthetic chemical use is phased in. A nation richer in bio-diverse soils and a cleaner environment, boasting a powerful national standard for a new and emerging export product (natural wine), resulting in a model for other forms of agriculture and food production to follow, is strong incentive and both socially and economically beneficial. The premium the world pays for Swiss products would have a new and morally defensible justification.

Lest I be so naive to ignore the powerful interests of the chemical industry and the economic interests of Switzerland itself, it is increasingly clear that the chemical conglomerates are under attack and may be on the decline, at least in wealthy, health conscious nations. The industry has no moral ground here and is quickly facing stricter regulation and outright bans. Currently France is preparing to ban certain synthetics and the United States, California in particular, is doing the same. Switzerland with its scale, the clustering of its vineyards and the will of a new, environmentally conscious generation is the perfect test case for this type of mass conversion. It’s time to end the illusion of Production Intégrée by committing to real, sustainable change. The opportunity for Switzerland to market itself as the premier producer of natural and sustainably made wine awaits.

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