How To Apply Your Ethical Fashion Values To Buying Wine

Photographed by Beth Sacca.
One benefit of this never-ending pandemic? It’s easier than ever to drink good wine. Restaurants across Canada have opened their cellars, importers and domestic wineries are shipping mixed cases, and bottle shops are proliferating (even in stodgy Ontario). 
If you shop local for food or care about ethical fashion, it might be time to extend that ethos to what’s in your glass. Winemaking can be just as shady as any other business: unfair labour practices, damaging pesticides, chemical additives, and animal products are as rampant in mass-marketed wines as in fast fashion
Want to be as mindful in how you choose your wine as your loungewear? Here’s how to drink less, but better — better for the planet, better for workers, better for local businesses, and maybe better for you, too.

Look for wines labelled natural, organic, and biodynamic

Natural wine has gone from being niche to mainstream in a less time than it takes the average Bachelor winner to fade into obscurity. While there’s no official certification for what makes a wine “natural,” they tend to be made without adding a bunch of chemicals. Natural wines are often funky, cloudy, and rather acidic, but they can be super classic and worth aging a few years (if you can wait that long).
Just like some Bachelor contestants, Danielle Nicholls, sales and marketing manager for The Living Vine — an importer with a focus on organic, biodynamic, and natural wines — said some winemakers are using the natural label “aren’t doing it for the right reasons.”  
“Some producers have adopted that term to be trendy,” said Nicholls. The Living Vine, which focuses on low-intervention, biodynamic, and natural wine, looks for organic and biodynamic certifications to back up claims of natural winemaking. Biodynamic wine-making employs organic practices and takes a holistic approach to agriculture. That might involve mixing plants into vineyards to increase ground cover and keep more water in the soil, using livestock to prune and fertilize, or considering the lunar calendar when harvesting. Organic rules vary by country, but European-based Demeter now offers farms biodynamic certification in 50 countries, including Canada.
Wine "is the one product you don’t have to list the ingredients on the back,” said Nicholls, yet dozens of additives are allowed. If you spend extra at a small, local butcher for hormone-free meat, why not do the same for your wine? 
The labels and rules aren’t always clear, so your best bet is to find a wine seller you trust and ask questions to be sure about what isn’t in your glass. 

How to find wines the best wines for the planet

Organic and biodynamic processes are one way to make a wine more eco-friendly. Conventionally produced wine typically involves harmful pesticides: In the land of wine, aka France, vineyards take up just 3% of all agricultural land, but account for 20% of pesticide use. And there are other ways wine-making affects the environment: irrigation soaks up water, buildings and farming equipment can gobble up energy, and heavy glass bottles — once a sign of luxury — increase carbon emissions during shipping. 
Want to green your wine? Seek our sustainable certifications that consider the entire ecological footprint of wine, from vine to glass. Around the world, from Austria to Chile, national wine-making organizations are increasingly offering sustainable certifications. In New Zealand, it’s become the norm: 96% of wineries are certified as sustainable
All that extra care and attention is better for the planet and perhaps tastier, too. “The more mindful you have to be about the vineyard and the entire process... I think it does make the wines better,” said Jennifer Huether, a master sommelier and director of education at non-profit Femmes du Vin. How? Because wine is an agricultural product, and the more time you spend nurturing it, thinking carefully about how you make it, the better the end result can be. 

Consider who makes your wine and how they’re treated

The debate over migrant labour in our food supply chain isn’t new, but it rocked the natural wine world last year when a popular producer from Puglia, Italy was embroiled in scandal following her father’s arrest for allegedly abusive and illegal treatment of migrant workers. The still murky controversy surrounding Valentina Passalacqua highlighted the issue for many in the industry.
The key for consumers is to seek sources who care about their suppliers’ labour practices — such as importers like The Living Vine, which dropped Passalacqua’s wines last year.
Krysta Oben, co-founder of the Grape Witches — a Toronto-based wine importer, bottle shop, and curator of lush events — said they ask those questions up front, whey they choose what wines to offer, so you don’t have to. That way, “you can feel good about what you’re drinking, without having to think, Who picked this?”

How to find vegan wines 

Wine might be predominantly grape juice but that doesn’t mean it’s always vegan. Many animal products can be involved in wine-making, from egg whites and fish bladders for fining (essentially filtering) to beeswax for sealing bottles. But after years of vegan marketing being out of fashion, it’s more and more common to find them advertised in wine shops and on restaurant menus.
“We define [vegan wine] as no animal products used in the making of wine,” said Christine Coletta, co-owner of Okanagan Crush Pad Winery in Summerland, B.C., which only produces vegan wines. Coletta said it’s about removing additives from wines, increasing awareness about all those additives, and giving consumers choices that align with their moral beliefs.
Vegan certification has limits. It often only ensures no animal products touch the wine itself, but in some cases animals still work or live on the farm or cheese is served in the winery’s restaurant. Some wineries, such as Keint-He in Ontario, go full vegan and don’t allow animal products in their kitchens and use vegan glue for labelling.
Colettea said her winery “does not raise animals for meat, but we do use sheep for grass mowing and chickens and ducks for pest control.” (These are common biodynamic practices.) 
Confused yet? Your best bet is to ask questions when buying your wine, whether that’s at a store, from an importer, or directly from a domestic producer. 

Why it’s worth paying more for wine you can feel good about

If you’re used to spending $12 on your go-to bottle of white, forking out $25 or even $35 for a biodynamic, sustainable wine might prompt some sticker shock. But every ethical choice — cutting out pesticides, paying workers more, reducing energy use, getting a vegan certification — makes it more expensive to produce that bottle.
“It’s like the difference between fast fashion and buying something made by hand,” said Oben. “It’s more expensive, it truly is, to buy wine that’s made from small farms.”
But there are ways to find value: Chile is offering more affordable and increasingly sustainably certified wines, there are bargains to be found in less prestigious European wine regions such as the Languedoc in France or Southern Italy, and you can order straight from wineries or importers and skip the mark-up. 
Being more mindful about what you drink is like being more thoughtful when you fill your closet: buy less, but of better and hand-made quality. Drink less, but better. Spend a bit more on each bottle and savour the quality instead of the quantity.

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