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Organic and sustainable wines proliferating and tasting great

The grapes at Bricco Maiolica, a Piedmont winery
The grapes at Bricco Maiolica, a Piedmont winery Special to The Star

Organic, biodynamic and sustainable wines are all the buzz these days. I don’t lay claim to knowing a ton about the categories, but the selections are clearly growing in both numbers and diversity. After encountering at least a dozen wines labeled organic, biodynamic or sustainable, I thought the time was ripe to explore the topic and the wines.

Let’s start with a general definition of the three categories. I found some good concise definitions at

Organic wine

It is made from grapes that were farmed organically. These are grapes that were grown on an organic farm and they receive the same organic farming certification as an organic apple or pear farm. If a wine is organic it will carry the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) organic seal. The USDA approval signifies that the wine is made from 100% organically grown ingredients and has been monitored throughout the entire production process.

Biodynamic wine

This wine goes beyond organic practices in an effort to balance the entire vineyard with nature and the moon cycles. It is based on the writings of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner who believed that the vineyard is one ecosystem that only when in balance can grow the best fruit. Biodynamic farming practices are widely used around the world, but there is no formal certification for them like there is for organic. s Some winemakers choose to simply take the organic seal and others list that the wine was created biodynamically on the bottle.

Sustainable wine

These practices are based on farming that is not only good for the environment, but also makes economic sense. This means that a farmer may largely use organic practices, but if some of those practices don’t make economic sense (perhaps they’re too expensive), the farmer might skip some of them. Just as with biodynamic wine, there is no formal certification for a wine to be sustainable, but there are several associations that winemakers can join to formally list themselves as a sustainable vineyard.

For my first batch of impressive wines from these categories, I turn to the exciting wines of Sergio Arcuri.

This Calabrian winery, located in the heel of Italy, produces some lovely organic wines. I tasted the Aris, labeled Ciro Classico Superiore. It is as unique as it is delicious. The winery is among a growing band of producers making find red wines from Calabria’s star red grape, Gaglioppo. If you want to try something both historic and modern, this is a wine worth seeking out. According to information I was able to glean, the winery works in an environmentally friendly way, but is not yet certified organic. So, I guess you’d call the wines sustainable.

I also loved the wines of Bricco Maiolica, a Piedmontese winery. I sampled three of their wines: a Dolcetto, a Langhe Rosso called “Tris,” a blend of Dolcetto, Barbera and Merlot and a wine called “Curnot,” comprised of 100 percent Nebbiolo and a Tre Bichhieri winner by Gambero Rosso, the highest rating the tasting group awards. The winery, currently in its fourth generation of family-run winemaking, dates back to 1928. As with the wines of Sergioi Arcuri, Bricco Maiolica is described as “practicing organic,” so put these wines down as sustainable too, though I’d personally list delicious well ahead of sustainable.

The rest of my earth-friendly wine picks are from California. Perhaps nowhere in the world are the categories of sustainable, organic and biodynamic growing more quickly than California. Sonoma County has pledged to be the nation’s first 100 percent sustainable wine region in the next five years, and the Central Coast-based wine group, SIP, standing for sustainability in practice, has long been a favorite of mine.

That’s where you’ll find J. Lohr Vineyards and Wines. A longtime leader on the central coast for sustainability. J. Lohr has focused on solar energy, water conservation and having its vineyards certified sustainable. I filmed with J. Lohr when I was producing my television show, “Culinary Travels with Dave Eckert,” and have tasted nearly all of their wines. A particular favorite is the Hilltop Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine of elegance and balance that is, in my opinion, one of the best expressions of pure Cabernet fruit from the central coast.

Moving north into Napa, I would also recommend the Spottswoode Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. Wine legend Tony Soter transitioned the historic estate into organic farming, culminating in Spottswoode being only the second estate vineyard in the Napa Valley to earn organic certification. The wines were terrific then and they are no less so now.

I’ll finish my list of wines that impressed me with the wines of those producers I filmed with during the production of “Culinary Travels:” Wente, Parducci, and Paul Dolan.

Wente Vineyards, located a bit off the beaten path in Livermore, Calif., is truly impressive. Armed with its own gourmet restaurant and concert venue, Wente Vineyards is also the oldest continually operated family-owned winery in the United States. The winery has been a leader in the area of organic and sustainable wines. I recently tried a number of their offerings and was impressed by them all. I was especially pleased with the Cabernet Sauvignon, a grape I often find to be overripe and over-extracted to my taste. Wente’s version emphasizes elegance over power and maintains a nice balance between fruit, oak and tannin. It’s a real crowd-pleaser and promises to be quite flexible with a wide range of food.

Parducci, another longtime California producer, is located in the Mendocino County, a versatile, and in my opinion, underrated wine producing region. From the coast into the valley, Mendocino produces a staggering array of wine varieties. I quite liked Parducci’s Pinot Noir, which was brimming with bright cherry and berry fruit, but was balanced by a lovely core of acidity.

Finally, there was Paul Dolan, who, if memory serves, was the original General Manager and an investor the Fetzer winery, also in Mendocino. Through the years I’ve had Dolan’s well-crafted, delicate Sauvignon Blancs, so it came as no surprise when that was the wine of his I liked the most.

I’m not sure if I have a clearer understanding of sustainable, organic and biodynamic wines after my tastings, but this much I do know — their numbers are increasing and their quality has never been higher.

Dave Eckert was the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS and Wealth TV for 12 seasons.