Earth-friendly: Wine Beyond the Labels

Mary Certain

Mary is a wine enthusiast and Level 3 WSET graduate. She loves walking around Lake Harriet to admire all the happy pups, cooking with her foodie friends and family, and is extremely competitive about jigsaw puzzles.

Wine may technically be a luxury item vs. a necessity, but for many (myself included) it greatly contributes to the enjoyment of life, and is not something I’m looking to cut out. So, with our wine habit here to stay, how can we reduce the environmental impact of our consumption? As with most goals that seem too big or unclear, the important thing is to get started, do the best we can, and keep going!

Buzzwords (Organic, Biodynamic, Sustainably grown, Eco-friendly, etc.) can be a helpful place to start, but can also be redundant or confusing. Beyond that, many wines are made using the same conscientious techniques, and yet for one reason or another they don’t use these terms overtly. The following are a few other things I think about when seeking a wine that will be better for the Earth (and taste better, too!)

Vineyard Care

This encompasses everything from water use to pest control to soil stewardship, and beyond. Grape vines take years to mature and are high-maintenance to keep in healthy condition, annually producing the best possible fruit. 

So, I say the single best indicator of a sustainable wine is a wine-maker’s enthusiasm for the site and soil where their grapes are grown. When they have pride in the land they tend, they are judicious with their resources, cautious with interventions, and careful in how they manage the fruit once picked. They take a long-view approach and do what is best for the earth, because that same ground will continue to grow the vines for future years and they know exactly how special it is. 

Love of the land and masterful winemaking knowledge translates to a delightful bottle in Christina Gruner’s Veltliner Austria 2022 

(Full disclosure; I happened to meet Christina recently and can vouch that she is a lovely gracious person as well as being a passionately responsible winemaker!)

Barrels

Using oak barrels to ferment and age wine is a longstanding tradition, but mature oak trees are a slow-growing resource and add significant cost as well. By using neutral (previously used) barrels for their wine, a winemaker can take advantage of the benefits of oak, allowing it to soften and gain complexity, but without imparting oaky flavor notes. 

This means the hard work of growing healthy grapes in the vineyard isn’t overshadowed by the wood and they are able to reuse existing barrels. Win(e)-win(e)! Queen of Sierra Amber Calaveras County 2023 uses only neutral oak for barrels (as do all wines from Forlorn Hope).

Packaging

This is where we as consumers have the most direct impact! Aside from packaging being a source of waste, the weight of heavy glass bottles is relatively high compared to alternatives and the space required to ship is double. 

If you’re serving wine for a large gathering, consider a boxed wine. The quality and range of options in boxes is constantly increasing as more people are appreciating this flexible option. And if serving a boxed wine feels too informal, simply transfer it into a lovely pitcher or carafe. Bandit Pinot Grigio from California is a great choice and a crowd pleaser!

Complicating the Black Relationship to Wine: Part 2

Barrel holding two wine bottles
Kaleigh Swift

Kaleigh Swift

Kaleigh has been working with the France 44 events team since January 2023. She received her WSET 1-3 certifications through France 44. Kaleigh also works in communications at the University of Minnesota. In her free time, she enjoys playing and watching volleyball, spending time with her cats, and working on house projects. Kaleigh is an avid vermouth fan and never misses an opportunity to introduce someone to Spanish-style sweet vermouths!

If you read part 1 of this blog post duo, you’ll know a bit more about the early history of fermented alcoholic beverages in pre-colonial Africa, along with some mentions of the first Black viticulturists and vinters in the United States.

Now, we can look more at the “why” behind that history, to help make sense of how we got to today, where Black presence in wine is becoming more visible. This post will look more closely at false stereotypes, Black perceptions of wine, and on my own personal experiences as a consumer and professional in the industry.

While researching the origin of the stereotypes I mentioned last week, which assert that Black people don’t like fuller-bodied, complex wines, I ran into quite a few interesting finds. Several articles that re-affirmed these stereotypes with less than impressive lines of reasoning, some blog posts pushing back, and even a few published research papers.

Quite a few modern pieces hypothesized an explanation for these stereotypes that I think is logical. Racism and white supremacy is a socialization process and system of power that dehumanizes Black and indigenous people, erases their cultures and histories through colonialism, and insists that they are fundamentally incapable of producing complex and “civilized” societies. Through the normalization of these beliefs, especially in America, harmful stereotypes have emerged, rooted in the assertion that Black (and indigenous) people are too uncivilized to understand, participate in, or comprehend the complexities of society.

Black people, almost by default, get excluded from, or written out of wine history because acknowledging our ancestors and their contributions also forces society to reconcile with the fact that, as I mentioned last week, “undoubtedly, where grapes were grown and wine was produced in the new world, slave labor was being used to do so”. Black history and the history of wine are intertwined. We, in fact, are fully capable of understanding wine, having complex palates, and knowledgeably producing quality products.

Articles seeking to broaden the discourse on the Black experience in the wine industry often begin with personal narratives of authors encountering assumptions about their presence at industry events or being directed towards budget and sweeter products. These anecdotes underscore the persistent challenges of racism in the field.

And in my research for this blog, I started to question whether or not this stereotype I’ve been researching, the preference for sweeter wines like moscato among Black wine drinkers, actually existed, or whether it had in some way been manufactured by the industry insisting and marketing folks into believing that was the case.

On the one hand, let’s acknowledge that moscato is an easy drinking wine that is a great intro for folks who are new to wine, or just looking for something a little sweeter. On the other hand, that is the case for all people, not just Black people. And our ability to enjoy wine doesn’t stop at moscato alone, as evidenced by Mother Vines: A History of Black Women and Wine, a research project explaining over 400 years of documented history of Black women’s relationships to wine and exploring this intersectionality between race, class, and gender.

My own experiences of wine have included very little moscato that I can recall. Even prior to studying wine, I purchased primarily Pinot Noirs or Sauvignon Blancs. I was always willing to try new things and found wine to be utterly fascinating.

Some years ago, I started visiting my uncle regularly in the Bay Area, and one of our favorite things to do was go up to Napa wineries. It was during these visits that my journey to becoming a wine professional started. Not because I was in awe of the folks presenting us wines in Napa, but often because I felt like I wanted to know more and my inquisitiveness was often met with derision and hasty answers, lacking depth.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be nurtured by the wine professionals at France 44 who saw my interest as a positive quality and happily answered my questions throughout WSET (a wine certification program administered by France 44), and beyond. I am excited and proud to be Black in wine, and have found a lot of joy in this journey. Unfortunately, this is not the experience of many. We have a long way to go before people who have historically been written out of wine are able to be fully recognized and appreciated for their value and contribution to the industry.

Complicating the Black Relationship to Wine: Part 1

Kaleigh Swift

Kaleigh Swift

Kaleigh has been working with the France 44 events team since January 2023. She received her WSET 1-3 certifications through France 44. Kaleigh also works in communications at the University of Minnesota. In her free time, she enjoys playing and watching volleyball, spending time with her cats, and working on house projects. Kaleigh is an avid vermouth fan and never misses an opportunity to introduce someone to Spanish-style sweet vermouths!

The key to understanding Black people’s historical and modern relationship to wine–grape growing, winemaking, selling, and consumption–is to look at Black people’s relationship to this land, this society, and our ancestors. 

We are well overdue for a confrontation of the harmful stereotypes around Black people’s “preferences” of sweeter wines and assumptions that we have no interest in more complex, robust, full bodied beverages as writer Kimberly Marie Ousley details in her 2017 article “Stop Telling Me to Drink Sweet Wine Just Because I’m a Woman of Color.” 

We won’t get through the entirety of this conversation in this one blog post, but I hope to at least direct you towards some good sources, and of course some good wines! We’ll focus on some broad topics that will help to sketch a more nuanced picture of how we got to today, where less than 1% of the US’s more than 11,000 wineries are Black-owned, and it’s commonly assumed that Black people have had no place in winemaking history.

The intentional fermentation of grape juice into an alcoholic beverage is thought to date back to the early neolithic era with earliest evidence dating back to 6000 BCE from the Gadachrili Gora settlement in Georgia. (Did you make it to our Ancient wines pop up? So cool!) By 2700 BCE, a winemaking industry was well established in ancient Egypt, a civilization that was also actively trading with others in the Mediterranean, North Africa, West Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Near East.

The wine industry in Egypt was likely brought by experts from the Levant. And while grapes and wine didn’t feature prominently in Africa until the time of the Egyptian dynasties, the fermentation of fruit and grain juices was far from uncommon across the entire continent of Africa (and across the whole world). 

Early alcoholic beverages were likely early forms of mead, as honey was a product cultivated as early as 40,000 years ago. Palm wine, a popular beverage made from the sap of certain types of palm trees in west Africa, has also long been important to cultural and social traditions.

In the “modern era” (meaning settler colonialism onward), wine’s importance to Western European culture and ritual necessitated its export to the places they colonized. 

And undoubtedly, where grapes were grown and wine was produced in the new world, slave labor was being used to do so, though written documentation is scarce. The estate of Thomas Jefferson confirmed that enslaved laborers were in fact responsible for cultivating the 193 acres Jefferson had designated for producing wine grapes. The earliest written record of a Black person making wine comes in 1888 when in Orra Langhorne’s book Southern Sketches of Virginia, she recounts a visit to the Charlottesville, VA estate of Robert Scott, a Black man, where she enjoyed, “…an excellent glass of wine made from his own grapes.”

Much of Black people’s historical relationship to wine remains obscure, though anecdotally many families’ histories speak of their ancestors making “jug wine” for consumption by their own families or communities. Sound familiar? This is how much of the wine of the world is produced–locally and at small scales. This method of production undoubtedly made wine more accessible and cost effective for Black people. 

However, over the course of the 20th century, Black land theft likely made any small production that was in existence virtually impossible. The longstanding socio-economic disparities caused by systemic racism, particularly around access to land ownership and capital, has played an outsized role in the lack of diversity in the industry. 

Less obscure is Black peoples’ historical relationship to liquor production, including famous brands such as Jack Daniels. The crops used to produce many types of liquor were more readily available and actively grown in the US for food–unlike grapes–leading to continuous production of liquors even during prohibition.

We got the first Black-owned winery in 1940 in Clarksville, VA, where John June Lewis Sr. opened a small commercial winery that successfully produced a dry red wine and a dessert wine made from dried (raisin) grapes. In the decades leading up to the 21st century we have a small handful of trailblazing Black wine professionals making splashes in the industry, such as Deneen, David and Coral Brown of Brown Estates in Napa, Mac McDonald of Vision Cellars in sonoma, and Iris Rideau of Rideau Vineyards outside of Solvang. These wineries still exist today! In recent years, the presence of Black viticulturists, winemakers with vineyards and estates, and even négociants is actively increasing and becoming more reflective of consumers. 

The conversation continues in part 2 HERE!

We’re highlighting some of the work of fantastic producers this Black History Month. You can learn more about and purchase some select products below!

In Sheep's Clothing Cabernet

Black cherry and dark brooding blackberry balanced by bright lifted notes, this 100% Cabernet Sauvignon is sourced from both Wahluke Slope and Red Mountain in Washington state. The opulence of fruit is dominant, balanced by smooth tannins and a long finish.

O.P.P. Pinot Noir

An accessible, great value wine that stays true to the character of the vineyards from which it was born. Earthy, spicy, floral, herb-framed flavors of cherry with gingery wood spice tones.

Horseshoes & Hand Grenades

A fruit-driven, full-bodied, complex red blend sourced from Southern Oregon and Washington State. The rich, ripe, voluptuous fruit comes from the Syrah out of the Rogue Valley in southwestern Oregon, with just enough Washington Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to give it complexity and structure. Barrel aged for 10 months.

McBride Sisters Red Blend

A hint of toasty mocha carries the robust plum and cherry aromas through to the lush, full palate. Soft, round and full of jammy fruit, this wine finishes with an elegant touch of fine-grained tannins.

McBride Sisters Sauvignon Blanc

Generous tropical fruits pair with white flowers and citrus on the nose. Ripe peach and mango aromas play with more exotic fruits like passion fruit and Fuji apple. In the mouth, key lime flavors hang on a medium full body, which contrasts beautifully with the firm acidity and mineral tone on the finish.

The Wines the World Forgot

Grapes growing on raised trellis
Karina Roe

Karina Roe

Karina (she/her) as a wine educator and as our Events General Manager. She has her Diploma in WSET Wines & Spirits, and finds that her fridge is constantly occupied by bubbles, Riesling, and non-alcoholic beer. She and her partner share an adorable dog named Ziggy who loves eating sticks as much as she likes drinking bubbles.

We’ve all heard (and used) categorical language like “New World” and “Old World” when it comes to describing the kind of wines we like, with “Old World” largely referring to European wines and “New World” being used for countries like the United States, all of South America, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. While these terms are extremely fraught, we have a hard time breaking out of using them because they’re comfortable shorthand for the descriptive, esoteric (and exclusive/isolating) wine language we’re maybe less familiar with and less confident in using. 

There are, of course, some “New World” (aka, non-European) regions that have a longer winemaking history than some European regions and frankly, the lines get pretty blurry when it comes to why wines taste different between those two categories. They’re just not the accurate descriptors they may have once been. But honestly, our wine drinking culture today is far less focused on using accurate wine descriptors and categories and much more interested in the story of a wine. We want to taste a little pizzazz, a little romance! Doesn’t your wine taste better when you know the name of the horse that plowed the vineyard rows? 

But if we look beyond that western skyline (both literally and figuratively), there’s a wine story that’s far, far older than any European country. Marc Hochar of Chateau Musar in Lebanon purportedly coined the term “Ancient World” to bring that story back into the conversation. All the wine regions situated east of western Europe (or at least those that became aligned with the East after the fall of the Roman Empire) usually get conveniently forgotten when it comes to classic/traditional wine education. But where Europe’s winemaking began in earnest with the influence of the Roman Empire, these Ancient World regions were making wine thousands of years earlier than that. 

So, what are we actually talking about with Ancient World wines? Greece and Lebanon can absolutely be included in that category, for starters. Greece had a huge viticultural influence on the Roman Empire and helped spread wine all throughout Europe, and modern-day Lebanon was once part of Phoenicia (and we all know how much the Phoenicians loved wine). But equally or more ancient are regions like the Republic of Georgia and Armenia. How old are we talking? There are archaeological records dating back over 8000 years and 6000 years, respectively.  

The modern-day wines of these regions have benefited from the technological innovations of the 21st century, but the farmers and makers of these wines are fierce protectors of their heritage and champion their native varieties and ancient traditions. Use of qvevri and amphora for fermentation and aging vessels is not uncommon, nor are “orange wine” (or white grape skin contact) fermentations. Varieties like Rkatsiteli, Areni and Voskehat are cultural equivalents of what Pinot Grigio, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc are to the western world. 

Our Ancient World Wine Bar Pop-Up on February 16 is the perfect opportunity to get acquainted with these varieties and techniques. These wines are deliciously approachable and thoughtfully made, yet perfectly unfamiliar and will invite you to spend a little more time with them. Join us to learn about their stories while you sip your way through ancient history. 

Sneak Peek of featured Ancient World wines: 

Keush ‘Origins’ Brut 

Lyrarakis ‘Voila’ Assyrtiko 

Orgo Rkatsiteli 

Chateau Musar ‘Levantine’ Red Blend 

And then, mark your calendar for February 20th at Parkway Theater for a screening of the newest of the Somm movies, the highly-anticipated Cup of Salvation, presented by Twin Cities Somms! Click HERE for tickets and more information.