Are So-Called Natural or Organic Wines Better for You?

Drinking has always had its positive points and downsides. We’ve seen misguided legislation that only fueled the latter along with the more sobering side of the devastating effects of alcohol.

It hasn’t been an easy road but instead falls into that proverbial gray area. Even Benjamin Franklin addressed this quandary when he said,

Moderation in all thingsincluding moderation.

Changes in technology—for good and bad—have brought us to a new place where we must ask the question again with these factors in mind.

Are natural or organic wines better for you?

Defining Organic

Let’s set aside the official definition for the moment to consider something more fundamental, namely, the proper use of the term. It is a misnomer at best.

The definition of the term means “noting or pertaining to a class of chemical compounds that formerly comprised only those existing in or derived from plants or animals, but that now includes all other compounds of carbon.”

The chemical formula for wine fermentation is:

C6H12O6 + Yeast → 2(C2H5OH) + 2(CO2) + Heat

By that equation, it is evident that all wine is organic. It’s simply a matter of how the USDA and other government agencies regulate it.

Now, let’s think about the other aspects of wine that may affect our determination of health. I’ll consider that point both from a human physiological perspective and environmental impact.

The concerns rest with several key points:

  • Consumption impacts
  • Pesticide use
  • Environmental effects

Drinking Alcohol

Drinking to excess is wrong and unhealthy. That’s a given. Alcoholism is a serious issue with consequences that affect society. But let’s focus on what it does to you.

It rocked the world when news first broke about the possibility of health benefits from drinking wine because of resveratrol. But let’s be realistic.

The initial study involved mice which doesn’t necessarily equate to humans. Even rats have a different genetic makeup than those rodents. Later evidence hasn’t established anything definitive, let alone the amount that may offer something of value.

It doesn’t matter if you buy wine labeled “Organic” or “Made with organic grapes.” The health benefits aren’t enough to justify that you start drinking if you don’t already.

Pesticide Residue

Now we come to that tricky part of the discussion that is sure to rattle a few cages.

Organic farming, in general, doesn’t forbid the use of pesticides. Farmers can and do use pesticides in some operations. The difference is whether they are permitted by federal regulation.

The fact remains that there is an extensive list of things that are allowed in organic farming. It includes things like:

  • Boric acid
  • Insecticidal soaps
  • Rodenticides containing vitamin D3
  • Copper sulfate

Vineyards are no more immune to the ravages of pests than any other crop. One word: phylloxera. Pest control isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity. The question is how do you manage it?

To be fair, the use of pesticides and sulfites in organic farming boils down to the fact that they’re aren’t a lot of alternatives. Some wine growers use other elements of integrated pest management such as ground cover to prevent weed infestations.

And after losing an entire patch of tomatoes to blight two years ago, I can tell you that there is a special place in my garden shed for copper sulfate.

But what about residues and potential human harm?

You’ll be pleased to know that the 2017 Pesticide Data Program (PDP) Annual Summary found that nearly 100 percent of tested produce samples contained amounts well below anything that could hurt you, concluding that “The US food supply is among the safest in the world.”.

The caveat that I must add is that data show that both so-called organic and conventional grown crops had approximately equal amounts of residue.

The conclusion we can draw from this information is that there is no health advantage to organic wines. The produce isn’t even superior.

Environmental Impacts

The American scholar and journalist H. L. Mencken once said,

There is always an easy solution to every problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.

He couldn’t have been more right.

It’s not a far stretch to assume that minimizing your use of the land is better for the environment. When the question of using herbicides comes up, it’s a logical leap of faith to assume that using so-called natural products are better.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

Synthetic pesticides have a distinct advantage. Researchers can isolate the chemicals within them to minimize collateral damage to non-targeted pests. When you go to your local Lowe’s store and buy wasp spray, you know you’re getting a product that kills them and not bees.

It goes back to chemistry and genetics.

Organic products often lack this trait and kill honeybees. In fact, some of the most deadly pesticides are ones approved for this use like citronella and neem oil.

Okay, so vines don’t need bees, but the point is well-taken, nevertheless. The other problem exists with effectiveness.

Synthetic products are fine-tuned to do the job with the least amount of pesticide. For the vineyard owner, that means spraying the vineyards every couple of weeks to keep things under control.

Organic ones don’t have that same lasting power. That means spraying again every week or after every rain. Have you spotted the elephant in the room?

The carbon footprint, and thus, greenhouse gas emissions are higher with organic wines than conventional ones.

Rarely is there a simple fix to any problem when dealing with complex organisms. That’s why the arguments fall to the wayside to justify buying organic or biodynamic wines.

There are no superior health benefits. They are just as susceptible to pesticide residue which is negligible at best. And they have more negative environmental impacts.

So, keep enjoying your wine in moderate moderation. And raise a glass to the environment with a conventionally grown libation.

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

Tackling Memorization for the CSW Exam


You don’t have to read too far into the CSW exam study guide to find out that you’re going to have to do a lot of memorizing. As I’ve told friends and families, it’s not unlike getting an associate degree.

So, that poses the question of how to cram everything inside your noggin. Well, I think I’ve hit upon a way to help.

Anki to the Rescue

Anki is both a mobile and desktop flashcard app. It capitalizes on the concept of active recall testing to create the neural connections that will help you remember the data.

Don’t let the app fool you. Sure, it looks like an older Windows 3.1 program, but it’s powerful and intuitive to use. The best part is that you can study anywhere.

How Anki Works

The tedious part is creating the flashcards. There are free sets that people share in a host of topics. I prefer making my own from scratch to speed up the memorization process with some extra study time.

I’ve grouped my cards by the chapters in the study guide. It’s tempting to break down a topic like France into the main regions. However, you’ll likely remember the info in context because there aren’t a lot of cards in each set.

A better way is to put all the France cards together and add a separate field for region. You can also use tags. That way, when you test yourself, you’ll recall the actual info instead of the context of the nonrandomized questions.

You can get fancy and customize them too if that helps. The one thing I would suggest is installing the United States International keyboard to keep the spelling correct as you go through the different languages.

These keys become inactive until you hit the accented letter after it. The available ones are:

  • ‘ single quote becomes á
  • ” double quote becomes ü
  • ` grave accent becomes è
  • ^ caret (Shift-6) becomes ô
  • ~ tilde (Shift-) becomes ñ

It goes back to its original use if you hit it twice. It’s not the most user-friendly way, but it gets the spelling right. Which brings me to another point.

Respecting the Language

I also have used Google Translate to learning pronunciations too. As I’ve been studying Burgundy, I’ve learned the correct way to say Puligny-Montrachet instead of insulting the French with an Americanized way.

The next thing I need to tackle is a better way to memorize the geography.

Photo credit:

How to Study the Right Way for the CSW

I wanted to elaborate a bit more on the way to use the learning techniques. I have to start out by saying that I wish I knew this info when I was in college. It might have made calculus, genetics, and all those fun classes so much easier. Well, maybe.

A couple of caveats to start out. Again, I’m approaching this from a non-wine perspective. I’m on the science side of this question. But it’s valid nevertheless whether its’ the CSW or a MOOC that you want to ace.

Work with Your Mind

As I discussed before, the traditional techniques of cramming give you a false sense of security. You’re going to retain some info in short-term memory.

Then, confirmation bias will set in and let you believe that you’ve mastered it. Would that it were so. There are two problems with that premise.

First, it’s a false hope. You may have it for a bit of time, maybe even for the exam. But, then it’ll float away unless you actively recall it.

The second problem is that you may not get the best scores that you could on the test. Traditional methods don’t fall through with the scores. Other methods are more effective.

So, how can you use this info to your favor?

Studying to Learn

Distributed practice and flashcards are excellent ways to find a home for the information in your mind to make it last.

You could use distributed practice to study your flashcards. Do a few topics at a time once. The next time, do the next set, and continue going through your deck.

You can create separate practice quizzes using blank maps one time, recalling regions and stats with another, and then, doing your dates and other data in yet a third session.

Creating Your Flashcards

There is growing evidence that supports the benefits of handwriting versus computer use for taking notes in better cognitive activity and memory retention. It makes sense because you’re engaging more of your brain. It also creates stronger neural pathways for more effective recall.

What I propose is this: Write out your flashcards preferably with cursive writing. I can hear the moans from here. It is harder but only because you likely haven’t used those muscles since grade school. Your hand will probably get tired, but you’ll help yourself learn.

I have a handy project notebook with columns where I write questions on one half and the answer on the other. I nerd out and create a random pattern of asking questions so that I’m not just memorizing the order of answers. That’s an essential part of the practice.

Make It a Daily Practice

The next critical factor is to make it something you do every day. Even if it’s five minutes in the morning, it works. And some evidence suggests that it’s more effective if you’re trying to learn new material when doing it before you go to bed.

Use information like this study to your advantage and make your learning the best that it can be when you need it most.

After all, jumping back into the study habit is tough if you’ve been out of the saddle for a while. You lose that sense of discipline and urgency. The CSW exam will change all that for you.

Final Thoughts

You may find starting your journey daunting. It is, and I’m just a third into it, more or less. But having the reassurance of making your studying work for you is heartening and empowering.

Yeah, it’s hard. You don’t have to get too deep into it to figure that out for yourself. But make it a challenge with a kick ass reward at the end of it. I don’t know as I can think of a better occasion than to pop for a nice Burgundy or vintage port.

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Studying for the CSW


An essential thing to put on your to-do list when studying for the CSW is to attend the webinar, “The Insider’s Guide to the CSW Exam.” It gives you the lowdown about what you need to know and expect on the test.

If you’ve purchased the workbook, you’ll find that the info is concise but jam-packed. And anything in it is fair game for the exam. It is daunting when you start reading it, especially the figures, foreign terms, and geography.

Time Commitment

One point that struck me particularly was the advice to study every day for an hour and perhaps plan on a year to get ready. Yes, you read that right. It’s essentially an associate degree in wine.

And it makes such good sense too. The memorization is the biggest hurdle you’ll face. So, the more you see it, the better it’ll stick.

But there’s a good way and a bad way to go about it.

Relearning How You Learn

If you’re like most people, you studied by one of the following techniques:

  • Rereading
  • Highlighting
  • Cramming
  • Reviewing your notes

You may have had enough success to pass. But psychologists have found that certain techniques are better uses of your time. That comes in handy with the CSW exam.

According to a study by John Dunlosky et al, practice testing and what the researchers call distributed practice scored best for improving test scores. Doing the latter would involve practicing a selection of spelling words one at a time but not repeating them twice in a row.

If you just wrote each one 10 times, you end up giving yourself a false sense of learning. And what you do know is likely short-term memory which fades fast.

So, for the CSW, you could practice the terms in this manner, geography, and all the other bits instead of rereading the text several times. It’s harder up front, but it helps you retain it better to recall it at the exam.

You could print up the blank maps from the workbook and test yourself. Mix it up with a review of terms and another session with regs. You get the idea.

If things seem overwhelming, give it a shot and see if it makes things click for you.

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Biodyamic Wines?!

This entry is part of 3 in the series Alternative Wine

When I first read about biodynamic wines, I thought it was a joke. I even laughed out loud.

“Yarrow blossoms stuffed into urinary bladders from Red Deer?”

“A humus mixture prepared by stuffing cow manure into the horn of a cow and buried into the ground?”


I thought I entered the Twilight Zone.

What Are Biodynamic Wines?

Apparently, it was the brainchild of an Austrian philosopher named Rudolf Steiner. He believed the vineyard was a life force that the vintner had to manage with potions like the two above, for lack of a better word. And you had to mix them in the correct proportions.

We’re talking about something on the order of one sixteenth of an ounce per ten tons of compost. Skeptics will recognize the homeopathic implications of this preposterous formula.

Oh, and did I mention the moon phases of flower, fruit, leaf, and root that dictate what you can do in the vineyard? You probably figured that was next.

What the Evidence Says

Casting aside the prescience for a moment, the moon has absolutely nothing to do with the growth of vines or any plant for that matter. It’s the sun and the photoperiod that make the difference.

And as for tasting different, let’s just call it a riff on the bandwagon effect. It’s not unlike someone believing the more expensive wine tastes better like I mentioned last time. Sure, it’s not a hard-and-fast rule, but cheaper ones are not necessarily bad. And wines do evolve.

The worst thing about biodynamic wines is that there are people that believe in this nonsense. The astrology angle is one thing, but the homeopathic element shoots it into the stratosphere.

The new requirements by the FTC say it all.

“(1) there is no scientific evidence that
the product works and (2) the product’s claims are based only on theories of homeopathy from
the 1700s that are not accepted by most modern medical experts.”

So, where does that leave us? Unfortunately, it is a splitter faction of the organic-nature-rules-chemicals-are-bad ideology that is fully of hype and shady marketing practices.

My take: It is utter nonsense of the most insidious type. Avoid at all costs.

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