Reclaiming the future of food and farming

PAN in conversation with Veronique Raskin

VeroniqueVeronique Raskin is owner and founder of The Organic Wine Company in San Francisco. In February, Veronique sat down with PAN to tell us more about her passion for organics and organic wine.

Q: What led you to take an interest in organic wine?

To be blunt: my love for my family, my ancestor’s land, my passionate interest in health/wholeness and the fact that I discovered that my grandfather’s organic wines were the only wines that I could drink without feeling indescribably unwell, headachy, etc. So to backtrack, La Bousquette has been in my family since the French Revolution 1789.

After WWII, we began to use pesticides and fertilizers as did everyone else. However, in the 1970s, my grandfather, Pierre Fabre, professor of medicine a the University of Toulouse, noticed that our vines and soil were all dried up and in bad shape, compared to the vineyards of one of our cousin’s whose vineyards were simply thriving. He wondered, what was the difference? Well, our cousin had “gone organic.” He was a very open minded, talented man, often far ahead of his time, and he became convinced that the use of pesticides was destroying the health of the land, its steward and us, and it was harming the vineyard and the quality of the wine. So he decided to convert/revert to the organic growing methods. This of course was way before it was fashionable to be organic, and many people thought he was a bit mad for the effort.

He completed the transition to organic growing by 1980. I was here in the U.S. at the time. I really hadn’t planned to start or run a wine company, but he asked me if I would help him to import his wines. I agreed because of the very unique, one-of-a-kind nature of these wines. Fact: Our Bousquette red wine was the first organic wine imported and labeled as such in this market. The rest, as they say, is history—we are now beginning our 34th year in the business! 

Q. You’ve noted that people eat organic but haven’t expanded their thinking to drinking organic. Can you say more about why they should?

VineyardWell there are three main reasons. The first is personal exposure to pesticide residues, the second is farm or vineyard worker health and the third is the biosphere.

As PAN knows well, pesticides leave residues on crops. The Environmental Working Group (another wonderful organization doing great work to make the world less toxic) publishes something called The Dirty Dozen and the Clean 15. The Dirty Dozen is a list of the 12 crops with the heaviest pesticide residues, and the Clean 15 is a list of those crops that have the least amount of residues.

Table grapes are always in the Dirty Dozen, usually in the top five or six. What a lot of people don’t realize is that wine grapes receive even heavier applications of pesticides than table grapes. We had a wine industry insider take issue with that when we posted it on our website. He claimed that due to the “aesthetic concerns of wine makers” that Sonoma and Napa grapes were not sprayed heavily. Thanks to PAN and the EPA, we were able to direct him to links showing that after Kern and Madera Counties, Sonoma was the number three county when it came to the use of pesticides. Now, we know that Sonoma does indeed grow some nice tomatoes, corn and beans, but their main crop is wine grapes and the figures on file with the State of California and the EPA don’t lie. Wine grapes get sprayed with a host of pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and other harmful chemicals.

The pesticide industry has controlled the conversation by asserting that the trace amounts of residues are too small to matter. This is hugely misleading on numerous counts because even tiny amounts of some chemicals can have enormous effects on human health.

The EPA has found 34 different pesticide residues in wine made with conventional grapes. No one has tested the combination of these chemicals for how they affect health. There is no science to detail whether or not there are synergistic effects at work, so we are totally in the blind on this. I don’t know about you, but I prefer to know if the wine I am drinking is going to put my health at risk. And, let me add here, I am referring to moderate wine consumption of one or two glasses per day, not heavy consumption, which carries its own health risks.

Also, by focusing on the small amounts of residues in food or wine we miss the bigger picture of the impacts that spraying billions of pounds of pesticides have on our soil, ground water and air, our public health and the poisoning of animals who can’t read the signs saying stay away for three days after a field has been sprayed. 

It’s also important to consider the health of vineyard workers. In 2012 the French Government officially recognized a link between commonly used pesticides in vineyards and Parkinson’s Disease. It seems there were a lot of vineyard workers showing up with Parkinson’s Disease in the hospitals and clinics. These people were in their 30s!  

You might ask how this happened? The vineyard owners were not providing workers with either the proper instruction or the correct protection to ensure that they did not absorb the pesticides through their skin and clothing. The result was a staggering number of people who became quite ill. This is one of the unheralded tragedies of industrial agriculture, whether we are talking about wine or produce. If more people were alerted to this we could save a lot of lives and a lot of healthcare dollars!

The final major point about organic viticulture is the health of the soil, water and air. Use of chemical fertilizers depletes the nutrients in the soil, while the toxins in herbicides, fungicides and other sprays can pollute groundwater and poisons insects, birds, bees, amphibians and animals. When put into aerosol form and sprayed from airplanes, pesticide clouds can travel long distances affecting anyone who breathes.

So, switching to organic methods of growing for both wine and produce is not only a sensible thing to do, it is the moral thing to do as well.

Q. Where do The Organic Wine Company’s wines come from? Has it become easier to find organic wine?

Chateau BousquetteWe carry wines from most of the major wine producing areas of the world: Europe, the Americas, Australia, etc. (Go to store and see our full portfolio.)

Yes, organic wine is becoming easier to find, and the quality has been steadily increasing as well. When organic wines first hit the market, they had a stigma attached to them. “Fruity with a hint of compost” was used to deride them, and honestly, in many cases it was deserved. However, since the mid-1990s organic wine growers have upped their game and it is easy to find good tasting wines to stand up to any conventional wines.

Thanks to this legacy we have the unique situation where organic wines compete on price very well with conventional wines. Unlike the produce market, where an organic tomato can be up to twice as expensive as a conventional tomato, organic wines are highly competitive with conventional wines when it comes to price. We think this is a great thing as it allows people to easily redirect their wine budget to support organic growing practices without feeling a big pinch in their wallets.

Q. What led you to support Pesticide Action Network?

Honestly, I can’t remember when I first found PAN—it was many years ago, two decades ago. I went to an event in San Francisco where I was providing wine and one of the speakers was from PAN. She was outlining The Circle of Poison. I had not thought about it quite that way before and was flabbergasted to realize that pesticides that were banned in the U.S. were exported to countries in Central and South America to grow crops that were then imported back into the U.S. I felt I needed to do something to support you. Of course over the years, we have drawn heavily from your work to support our customers in understanding the importance of organic growing methods for creating a safer, saner, healthier world.  

Q. Many of your wines are sourced from Europe. Do you see a difference in European wine production vs. wine production in the U.S.?

The major area of difference affecting organic wine production has to do with sulfites. In the EU and Canada, a wine can contain up to 100 ppm of added sulfites, and, if it is made with grapes certified organic it may be labeled “organic” or vin biologique—as we think it should be. 

But in the U.S. wines with more than 10 ppm must bear the mention “contains sulfites” and may not be called organic if any sulfites were added to it, even if it was made with certified organic. Now note that this is what they call a “red herring,” distracting people from the real issue, which is pesticides. Note that, unbeknownst to most, sulfites (or SO2) occur naturally in wines and in many other products in life. A hardboiled egg has a high sulfite content, as do dried apricots and cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, Brussels Sprouts, etc.). About 1% of the population is sensitive to sulfites. The other 99% can eat and drink sulfite containing foods and beverages with no negative consequences. 

In the 1980s in the U.S., some restaurants were spraying sulfites on their salad bars to keep veggies looking fresh when they would otherwise wilt. The amount of sulfites being sprayed was pretty outrageous and many people were having some serious reactions to the sulfites.

There was a public outcry and a Congressional overreaction. A law was passed that essentially equated sulfites with nitrates and nitrites. Sulfites are totally harmless to 99% of the population. But, we ended up with a law in the U.S. that says any wine with a sulfur content higher than 10ppm must be labeled as containing sulfites. This is unfortunate as it can scare people away from wine that is quite delicious and may actually be of benefit to their health—in moderation. 

Adding to all the confusion is the misconception that sulfites cause headaches. Many people will say they can’t drink red wine because the sulfites give them a headache. The fact is that white wines have higher sulfite levels than red wine. Also, a professor of the Oenology Department at UC Davis has stated unequivocally that there is absolutely no medical research linking sulfites to headaches. Still the perception exists in the U.S. and it is very hard to fight it. 

Q. In your blog, you often mention the negative health effects of pesticide use. What other problems do you see in agriculture?

VineyardThere is a long list! There’s the cost to the land, the water, the air, the insects, the birds, the bees—many pesticides are directly linked to the world-wide honeybee die off, which is estimated to cost on the order of $12 billion per year in lost pollination. 

I could go on, but let me just say that the mindset that sees land, water, air and seeds as a machine for creating money instead of seeing the incredible intricate web of life at work is more dangerous to the future of humanity than any tyrant that has appeared in history. 

Let’s focus on the positive: Modern organic growing methods are capable of producing enough food for the world’s population—depending of course on getting that population stabilized. Organic growing methods fix nitrogen in the soil, restore watersheds and animal populations, and are being shown to play a role in helping to stabilize climate chaos. Organic methods also require more human hands to be involved and fewer machines—think of the employment potential! 

Q. It sounds like you have a passion for organics and for “walking the talk”—keeping your actions aligned with your values. Other than buying and selling organic food, what actions do you as an individual and a business owner take to help promote a better food system?

I just try to focus on what can be done, what I CAN do and not get too caught up in the demonization of large corporations, which is tempting. What is really mind-boggling and ironic is that the people who make pesticides and GMOs are putting their children’s future at risk. Gandhi once said: Your greatest ally is the part of your opponent that knows what is right. I think it is possible to help people to see the right way and do the right thing. I am one person, flawed like everyone else, embedded in a very sick system and trying to create as much health and balance as I can. It’s not my job to save the world—that’s way beyond me. But if I can help a wine lover to shift their budget to organic from conventional then I know I have done the part of making the world better that is mine to do. 

Q. Can you tell us a bit about the Millésime Bio Fair? Is there anything like it in the U.S.?

I am very proud to say that this gathering was seeded on my ancestor’s land – at the kitchen table of my house to be more precise – 21 years ago.

My brother, Dr. Michel Ginoulhac, who was tending our family’s property at the time, came up with the idea of bringing together his buddies in the neighborhood who, like him, had converted their family property to organic practices. There were about half a dozen of them and they started “hanging together.” Around that table, they shared and tasted each others’ productions, complained, laughed, cried, exclaimed etc. Then they decided to meet & exhibit their wines to the public in some venue – someone’s garage I think–the following year. But nobody came.

However, year after year, they hung in there, and it touches my heart to see what a success this event has become. There are now more than 800 producers from 12 different countries who come together every year in January. Originally founded by a handful of Languedoc-Roussillon winegrowers, Millésime Bio now gathers the main buyers in the wine market each year: the trade fair attracts wholesale merchants, brokers, retail wine merchants, sommeliers, hospitality-industry professionals, and importers from across five continents.

I don’t know of anything comparable happening in the U.S.  

9. Can you tell us a bit about vegan wine? What is it?

Organic WineVegan wines are wines that are not exposed to any animal products. There is a process in wine called “fining” where a substance—quite often egg white—is added to the vat of the wine. As it settles and moves from the top of the vat to the bottom, the egg white binds with impurities and leaves behind a cleaner wine. Not all wines are fined, but it is still common to use animal derived products when fining a wine. Vegan wines use fining agents that are free of animal products – like clay or ceramic.

10. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

The last thing I would like to say is how grateful I am to the Pesticide Action Network. People are waking up to the dangers we face as a result of over using pesticides and fertilizers. PAN is serving as such an important source of timely and verifiable information to help people reclaim a more human-scale world. I think that is at the core of things here, we need to shift our focus from creating a machine-scale world to a human-scale world; and perhaps it is a bit grandiose of me to believe this, but I think that wine is a key to a human-scale world. It is a living, breathing thing—held sacred in the world’s major religions—and the oldest prescribed medicine know to us. I recently heard Katherine Cole say, “Wine is the gateway drug to environmentalism.”

I am incredibly heartened by the organic movement, by the farm-to-table movement and by the slow food movement. Combined these three movements harken back to the old fashioned values of care and respect for the land, for the food and wine that the land produces, for the people who grow the food and produce the wine, for the soil and water and for the health of the entire community. Food is meant to be wholesome and nourishing—not something you eat on the fly while tweeting and driving—and I pray that nobody reading this tweets and drives and eats at the same time! Meals should be taken with friends and complemented by a good glass of wine—preferably organic.