We regularly receive questions about the farming practices of our producers, so we are now listing the farming methods of each producer at the bottom of each producer's page. We have identified 4 different types of agriculture practice and defined each of them below. We have also included some notes about the term 'natural wine' and the use of yeasts and SO2 in winemaking below.
In 'conventional' agriculture, anything goes but it is important to note that the use of agricultural chemicals has decreased markedly in the last 15 years or so in the vineyards I visit, and the great majority of the farmers whose wines we import live right next to their vineyards, so they have an obvious motive to avoid toxic chemicals. The yellow-orange strip of dead grass under the vine row that signals the use of herbicide, for example, used to be very common, but I haven't seen it in the vineyards of a producer I import for years (see photo for example). The organically permitted fungicides, elemental sulfur and copper sulfate 'Bordeaux mixture,' are still the most widely used treatments for vine fungal diseases such as Oidium, even in conventional agriculture. Natural alternatives to copper are being sought, and the use of more modern spraying equipment has reduced the amount of copper used per acre substantially.
Often referred to in the US by the French term 'Lutte Raisonnée,' this type of agriculture is in between conventional and organic agriculture. Only less toxic agents are used, and then only when necessary (not on a set schedule, in other words). The hard-core organic proponents maintain that this is a sell-out, but if applied conscientiously it seems to me that Lotta Integrata is a good middle ground. Some producers who tell us they farm organically but don't want to pay for organic certification are certified as Lotta Integrata.
We use this term to describe producers that farm organically (see Wikipedia entry for 'organic wine' for details). Some producers we label this way are certified in Italy, some are not, but we are satisfied that they practice organic viticulture in either case. The use of the term 'organic wine' on labels in the US has been complicated by the fact that the US does not allow the use of the common preservative sulfur dioxide (SO2, see below for more) in wines so labelled; this is contrary to the regulations about organic wine in the EU. In my opinion SO2 is fundamental to quality wine production, and the retention of this US rule is unfortunate.
This controversial term describes a mystical, quasi-religious method of farming that was invented by the Austrian philosopher-mystic Rudolf Steiner (see Wikipedia entries for Biodynamics and Rudolf Steiner). The method is rare in Italy, but a number of fine French estates have used it to make excellent wines.
This term has no clearly understood meaning, but has been taken up by producers who pride themselves on minimal intervention in vineyard and cellar. I am all for minimal intervention as long as the wine still tastes good, and many of our wines would fit into this category, but we don't use the label.
For some reason the avoidance of cultured yeasts has become very important to the 'natural wine' faction of the wine trade, and to some some wine consumers. I agree with the importer Terry Theise, who states in his autobiography that he is mystified by the emphasis on this particular aspect of winemaking in some circles. The use of yeast in winemaking ranges from the fully indigenous end of the spectrum (no inoculation at all, for a spontaneous fermentation) to the calculated use of specific cultured yeasts to emphasize (or even create) specific aromas and flavors in wine. I avoid the latter, the flavors in wine should come from the grapes, and not from cellar practices; many of our wines are spontaneously fermented, many are not, particularly whites. Winemakers use cultured yeasts for a variety of good reasons, principally to ensure that the fermentation finishes and to avoid the dominance of 'bad' wild yeasts in fermentation. I have seen no evidence for the attractive romantic idea that indigenous yeast is important to terroir expression, and many very 'terroirish' producers use cultured yeasts at least some of the time.
A preservative that has been used for centuries to make wine more chemically and microbiologically stable. Competent winemakers use very small amounts of it; the total amount of SO2 in the wines I import is always less than 100 ppm, usually quite a bit less than that. A very few people are very allergic to this substance, and should avoid it, but it is not harmful to the great majority of wine drinkers. It is very hard to make good wine without a modicum of SO2, as it protects wine from both oxidation and spoilage organisms such as the dreaded Brettanomyces.