Q&A: How to Find Organic Wine

  • December 12, 2012 4:30 pm

Question:

Dear Alexandra,

Now that it is holiday season, our family tends to have a lot of wine. I do try my best to buy organic wine but I have a really hard time finding it. Was wondering if you had some suggestions of where to find some?

Best,

Nancy

Answer:

Hi Nancy,

Glad to hear you’re trying to buy organic wine. Many people tend to forget that wine comes from grapes, and grapes are typically heavily sprayed with pesticides. I agree that finding organic wine can be tricky at times. This is partially because if it contains sulfites (which most wines do) it can’t be labeled USDA organic. Here is an excerpt about wine from my book The Conscious Kitchen that I think will be helpful:

“Organic standards do not permit the use of sulfites, the bacteria-killing preservatives used in making pretty much all wine. Some producers use organic grapes and add varying degrees of sulfites, resulting in wine that cannot technically be certified organic. These wines are often labeled “made with organically grown grapes” and are a good option….’Biodynamic’ is a third-party-certified method and term (Demeter-USA.org) that’s a bit confusing to explain. Basically biodynamic farming shares many tenets with organic farming (no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers are permitted–some people call it a forerunner to the organic movement) but takes it several steps further. Biodynamic vineyards have not only vines but also other plants, trees, and animals, all of which work together as a unified system–this is call biodiversity. “

So when it comes to looking for sustainable wine to drink, here is a sliding scale of what to look for:

  • Biodynamic
  • Certified Organic
  • Labeled “Organically Grown” or “made with organically grown grapes”
  • Bottles marked “sustainably grown” or “made with sustainably grown grapes”

Hopefully this will help you locate a bottle or two. You can also always ask questions in local wine stores. There tend to be producers who don’t bother to label their wines as organically produced, and the shop buyers can point you in the right direction. Here is a previous post from my old intern, Glenny, about her favorite organic wines that might also be of use.

Cheers!

-Alexandra

Q&A: Natural Solutions For Poison Ivy

  • August 29, 2012 9:00 am

Question:

Dear Alexandra,

I recently bought a house in upstate New York. It is perfect except for one problem: poison ivy. Now, I have kids and want to avoid using pesticides and chemicals because that is where they will be playing–outside on the lawn. Is there any way to deal with all this poison ivy non-toxically?

-Kevin

Answer:

Dear Kevin,

Congrats on your new home. Although it may seem impossible to deal with poison ivy without pesticides, apparently there are ways. I say apparently because I have not tackled this myself and an initial search shows the natural ways of battling PI get mixed reviews. But I certainly think they’re well worth a try. Here are some suggestions I saw listed as ways of battling poison ivy naturally: mowing it, suffocating it, and using certain plant oils. Do not burn it! This can result in serious rashes in your lungs and eyes (family lore is my grandfather did this once and was hospitalized).

All of these methods aside, it seems that the most effective way to deal with poison ivy is to pull it out. My understanding is that if you yank the itch-making stuff by the root, it cannot grow. Simple enough. Of course this poses another problem: PI is not exactly the sort of thing you want to be touching in order to yank. So full HAZMAT suit and rubber gloves are required. If this is not a task you would enjoy doing–who can blame you? I wouldn’t want to do it either–and  you have the budget, hire someone to do it for you. Here is great story about a guy in upstate New York who started his own poison ivy pulling business.

If you’re not Kevin and reading this and have other suggestions, please weigh in in comments.

Hope this helps. Good luck!

Best,

Alexandra

Q&A: Non-toxic ways to deal with grain beetles?

  • August 22, 2012 7:49 pm

Question:

Dear Alexandra,

This weekend when I went to my pantry I found grain beetles in there. I’ve been suspecting them for a while, but now it’s undeniable. I prefer not to use the conventional toxic products people use. Are there any non-toxic ways to get rid of them?

Thanks.

-Henry

Answer:

Henry,

I feel your pain and am glad you don’t want to use bleach or a conventional pesticide to get rid of grain beetles. I did a little research for you, including posting on my Facebook author page for suggestions. Here’s what my FB fans had to say:

  • “I just washed everything down with safe dish detergent and kept everything in glass jars or tight fitting lidded enameled cans after.”
  • “Just composted ALL the boxed crackers/pasta/etc. that were open/infested, plus the bulk items…if sealed in glass they are easy to contain. It was mostly crackers that got nasty. And old stuff. Even paprika!”
  • “Skim beetles off the top of the rice when you cook it. Whatever. No big deal, really. They ARE in there, no matter what.”

All in all some good advice here. The key is to methodically go through what’s in your pantry–spices and all–and compost (or, sadly, throw out) what appears to be infested. Peer into open boxes of pasta, crackers, nuts, rice, corn kernels, flour, dried fruit–everything. Once you’re sure you’ve looked at everything, wipe the cabinets down with plant-based dish detergent. If you have honey, vinegar, or oils in your cabinet that have dribbled, wash these bottles off, too. You can then keep sealed containers of food in your pantry. If you don’t want to bother with sealing everything off, you can always keep rice and other grains–once opened–in the fridge.

I hope this does the trick. Let me know how it goes.

Best,

Alexandra


Q&A: Juice Bars And Pregnancy

  • September 16, 2011 12:30 pm
THE QUESTION:

Hi Alexandra,

Just recently finished [The Complete Organic Pregnancy]. My husband and I have been recently trying for a baby and prior to that I probably devoured a dozen books on pre-pregnancy and I have to say your book is the most substantial and downright fantastic out of all of them! What I appreciated most from your book was how easily your research and tips could translate into everyday life and also how to truly make both your body and the environment both inside and outside the most optimal possible.

In saying that, I am left with a few questions:

1. Juices: I now know to avoid them, but what about smoothies, ingredients consist of whole fresh organic fruits, organic milk and ice??

That’s it, thank you so very much! Your book is the best gift I could have asked for and consult it regularly!!

With gratitude,

Meika

THE ANSWER:
Meika actually sent a few questions, so I’m answering them in separate posts.

You’re so welcome! Thanks for writing in.

The juices you’re referring to are the ones found at juice bars and smoothie shops.  Often these juices are from conventionally grown fruits and vegetables and the juicing machines are breeding grounds for dangerous bacteria like E. coli. You cannot guarantee that the juicers have been cleaned regularly (or with what–i.e. chlorine bleach or other chemicals that leave residues that get into your drinks).  Because juice bar juices are unpasteurized, they’re a major concern if you’re pregnant.  Even organic juice products are suspect. Odwalla faced a total recall of their products in the 1990s due to E. coli.  It’s just not worth the risk when you’re expecting. Far better to get your fruit and veggie fix from the actual thing. Or, as I mention in The Conscious Kitchen (excerpted below), you can make your own at home. That way you know what the ingredients are, where they came from, and that your juicer is clean.
Fresh squeezed, 100 percent juice is fabulous in moderation.  Thankfully, it’s so expensive at my local organic organic juice bar that moderation isn’t a problem.  If you’re someone who really likes juice, look into buying an energy-efficient juicer.  Having your own means  you can control what kind of fruit is used (local or organic or sustainable), how much and what kind of sugar is added, and how the machine is cleaned.

Alternatives to fresh squeezed are a mixed bag.  Most store-bought juice actually contains very little juice, so it’s up to an adept label reader to find the real deal.  Otherwise, you may suck down a lot of unnecessary and expensive sugar water (along with other unexpected additives, like synthetic fragrance).  Organic jarred or cartoned juices are sometimes guilty of containing as much sugar or sweeteners as their conventional counterparts, but at least it’s not derived from genetically modified corn.  When it comes to artificial sweeteners, all bets are off.  I don’t put those things in my body, and suggest you don’t either.  Real sugar is vastly preferable, unless, of course, you have a medical condition that means you can’t tolerate it.

Hope that helps!
Best,
Alexandra

What You Don’t Know: Cotton

  • August 23, 2011 9:05 pm

Can you believe it’s back to school/work/life season already?  Ugh. As cooler temperatures and new wardrobes (for some people, anyway) are on the horizon, it’s time to pause for a moment and think about what clothes are made of and what it entails to manufacture them. I found and continue to find the following facts about conventionally grown cotton shocking. They’re enough to send anyone straight to vintage/consignment/thrift shops. Second hand clothes are obviously a great way to reduce/reuse/recycle, but you’ll also likely be surprised by the gems you can find.  It might take some digging, but you’ll be rewarded with unique items and you’ll save money, too.

When buying new clothing, organic cotton is solid choice. Here are a few motivating facts excerpted from Planet Home about the cotton industry:

Conventional cotton often comes from genetically modified seeds and has been sprayed with pesticides, which is bad for farmers and the environment.  According to the Sustainable Cotton Project, cotton farming uses about 25 percent of the world’s insecticides and more than 10 percent of the pesticides.  These pesticides used on cotton happen to be among the world’s worst: Five of the nine most commonly used have been identified as possible human carcinogens.  Others are known to damage the nervous system and are suspected of disrupting the body’s hormonal system.

That said, organic isn’t the only thing to consider when it comes to sustainable fashion–not by a long shot. I explain further in this article I wrote recently about sustainable denim for The New York Times.

Meanwhile I’m personally just avoiding this whole change-your-wardrobe moment. My daughter could use a few items for school as she’s growing up up up, so I’ll fill her wardrobe in with hand-me-downs and maybe a few new things. I prefer to hold on to summer by avoiding wearing long sleeves for as long as possible, and to “shop my closet” when the weather forces me to. Amazing how much I’ve bought over the years that can be resurrected!

Q&A: Is borax safe?

  • August 5, 2011 10:48 am
THE QUESTION:

Hi Alexandra,
What’s your thoughts on Borax?  The name makes it sound scary…
Thanks,
Karissa
THE ANSWER:

Karissa,
Thanks for the question.  What are you thinking of using borax for?  In Planet Home, we do suggest using it for specific tasks (excerpted below), but the Environmental Working Group has damning opinion of it and links it to hormone disruption.  I use it only when I have to, which has so far been once in the last decade or so–for unwelcome guests. Otherwise I try to avoid it. If it can kill roaches, I don’t really need that residue in my sheets.
Hope this helps.
Best,
Alexandra

LAUNDRY

You can find Borax (sodium borate, a naturally occurring mineral composed of sodium, boron, oxygen, and water) in the detergent aisle of most grocery stores.  Add 1/2 cup of Borax to your regular detergent (liquid or powder) to give it an extra boost.  Borax will help to improve the cleaning power, whiten, and remove stains and odors.  You can also soak clothes in water with Borax (1 tablespoon per gallon of water) before washing.  When using on delicates, add 1/4 cup to your regular detergent instead.  Exposure to Borax can be harmful in high amounts, so avoid inhalation and ingestion.

UNWELCOME GUESTS

If, come spring, your living room has more bugs than you’d like to see, convince them to leave in a nontoxic fashion.  Pesticides have no place in the home.  For a natural ant killer, mix 1 part Borax and 3 parts sugar (granulated or powdered) with enough water to give the mixture a soup consistency.  Pour the mixture into one of more containers with lids.  Punch eight to ten holes in the lid(s) big enough for ants to access and place containers in infested areas.  Caution: keep out of reach of children and pets.  Borax is harmful when ingested.

What You Don’t Know: Additives in Your Wine

  • May 3, 2011 8:10 am

My lovely new intern, Glenny Cameron, works some at a local wine store and is keenly interested in sustainability. I asked her to write up something about what we drink–beyond grapes–when we open a bottle of wine. Conventional grapes are an intensely sprayed crop. But somehow even people who eat organic food neglect to drink organic wine. It may be an oversight, or maybe it’s because organic wine has long had a stigma of not being too tasty. Luckily this reputation is now undeserved.

When buying wine, do you think about how the producer has treated the vines?  The soil?  What about what has been added to the wine to make it taste more like conventional wine?  There are so many mainstream producers that are fussing with their grapes by using toxic pesticides, aromatic yeasts, and too many sulfites.  Did you know that historically some winemakers have used egg whites, milk, or blood as finings to improve their wine’s clarity?  Or that some vintners add an elixir called Mega Purple (discussed in depth by Wines & Vines) to enhance their wine’s taste and color?

Wine is a very confusing subject, made more perplexing because U.S. wine labels are not required to list any additives but sulfites, which are necessary to preserve the wine.  Unfortunately, the labels do not specifiy the amount of sulfites, which can be extremely high in some conventional wines.  To choose the best wines for the health of your body and the environment, I suggest looking to organic, sustainable, natural, and biodynamic wines.

In this excerpt from The Conscious Kitchen I write more in depth about natural wines.

Natural winemakers try to avoid additives as much as possible, and certainly never use anything synthetic.  Sulfites are the additives that most wine drinkers are aware of (they’re the only one listed on bottles), but there are actually two hundred additives that can be used in wine.  Many conventional winemakers use lab-produced yeasts to aid fermentation because their overuse of sulfites kills off not only bacteria but also natural yeast.  They also rely on additives like sugars and acids to adjust the flavor of grapes that don’t taste like they’re supposed to anymore, thanks to years of pesticide use.  Natural winemakers grow their vines in healthier, spray-free soil and therefore have healthier grapes that require fewer additives, and less of any one.  “Natural is about making quality choices, lowering yields, and hand picking in small containers instead of machine harvest,” says Jenny Lefcourt, cofounder of Jenny & Francois Selections.  She and her partner import to many states, from Oregon to North Dakota to Kentucky.  I have tasted most of what they bring to New York – and even visited one of the winemakers in France – and the wines are quite a bit different from what I’m used to.  They are for the most part very much alive – over the course of drinking a bottle they open up and taste surprisingly different.  Our (current) house red is a Jenny & Francois selection, Chateau Haut Lavigne Cotes de Duras 2006.  I was amused to realize that our winemaker, like our CSA farmer, is a woman: Nadia Lusseau.  Bonus: It’s about twelve dollars a bottle.  Natural (or organic or biodynamic or sustainable) wine doesn’t necessarily mean more expensive.

More from Glenny: For a comprehensive take on these issues straight from a vintner, check out Robert Sinskey’s open letter on his website.  This Napa winemaker is committed to treating his land with devotion and care.  He believes in biodynamic farming techniques–the land should be improved with farming, and that every aspect of the vineyard is integrated in a healthy circle of life.  This attention to nature has yielded thoughtful, delicious, and sublime wines.  His ’07 Merlot tastes of plums and smooth chocolate, perfect for a winter’s meal.  For lighter fare, Sinskey’s ‘ 09 Pinot Gris is fabulously floral and vibrant.  Its soft pear and apple flavors pair beautifully with minted snap peas from the Greenmarket.

At La Clarine Farm in Somerset, California, they aspire to the “do-nothing farming” technique. No tilling, no fertilizers, no pesticides, and no weeding.  The goal is to let the natural balances of the land do the work.  Less is more.  Without much intervention the farm should produce healthy, vital, and robust fruit, which in turn will create lively wines.  Their ’09 Syrah is hauntingly wonderful – complex and interesting, it tastes of sage and thyme, tobacco and cloves.

To find natural wines in your neighborhood, ask for them at your local wine shop.  More often than not, if they do sell any organic, biodynamic, or natural wines, they will be thrilled to guide you through them.  The more you know, the better purchases you’ll make.  And what could be a better evening tipple than a glass of wine you can feel good about?  Who says you can’t have two?  Cheers!

And cheers to you, Glenny, for writing this up–I love it. And kudos for working in the word tipple–fantastic!

What You Don’t Know: Methyl Iodide And Your Strawberries

  • April 26, 2011 8:25 am

I’ve decided to morph my Tuesday posts into a compendium of facts I find totally outrageous. These are things most of us know nothing about and yet they’re hiding in plain sight.

It’s about to be strawberry season so I’ll start my What You Don’t Know posts with methyl iodide, a soil fumigant pesticide used in the farming of these juicy red treats that just so happen to be my favorite fruit. This known carcinogen and neurotoxin, which causes late-term miscarriages (according to the Pesticide Action Network of North America), is approved for use in California, which is where most of the strawberries in the U.S. are grown. I’m no strawberry farmer, but I know this stuff is bad news for farmers, the groundwater, and eaters. So much so that I got several emails last week from environmental groups and other organizations (including FoodDemocracyNow.org, Center For Environmental Health, and Change.org) pushing to have it banned.

To put this all into perspective: last week Environmental Health Perspectives announced a study showing that children exposed to pesticides in the womb are more likely to have lower IQs.  From their press release: “…it makes sense that pregnant women should limit their pesticide exposure. They should use the smallest amount possible, have others place it, and just do what they can to minimize contact.” Uh huh. I prefer none.

Guess who doesn’t permit these sort of chemical pesticides on strawberries? USDA certified organic. And, to answer a question I get all of the time: No, washing and/or peeling conventionally grown fruit doesn’t get all of the pesticide residue off. Sorry; some of it is internal.

Fortunately methyl iodide isn’t what’s being used on my local strawberries (but that doesn’t mean I’m not signing petitions left and right and hoping you will, too). Unfortunately, I’m left trying to decide if I prefer local lightly sprayed to USDA organic but not-local-to-me strawberries, when all I want to be deciding is how many cartons to buy and how best to eat them–by the handful or in jams and pies.

In The Conscious Kitchen I discuss the difficulties of this local vs. organic push-pull, using strawberries as my  example. Here’s an excerpt:

Unless you’re 100 percent organic or 100 percent local (most interested eaters fall somewhere in between), it’s hard to figure out how, when, and why to choose local over organic, and vice versa.  Amy Topel, an educator and former food columnist for the now defunct Green Guide – the publication that existed before National Geographic bought the property – refers to this experience as “flummoxing.”  That’s about right.  “In Whole Foods they have local strawberries and organic ones,” Topel says.  The locals aren’t organic, and the organic ones are grown halfway across the country.  “I’m feeding my baby and I want him to eat organic; he should not be taking in those pesticides.  For ten minutes I walked back and forth – Do I care more about my baby?  Or everybody else?  I ended up deciding I didn’t want him to have the pesticides.”  This is just one instance of choosing organic over nonorganic local.  This mental tug-of-war is a familiar process for those of us trying to decide what the ratio of organic to local should be in our diets, especially where kids are concerned.  Pound for pound, developing little ones take in more of the harmful chemical spray residues than adults do, which is why organic is so crucial for them and for pregnant moms.

The trick to coming to peace with this local versus organic dance is to educate yourself on the concerns.  If health is your main concern, then you might decide that you always want to avoid ingesting sprays that have been linked to cancer, no matter how small the amount.  You’ll mainly choose organic.  If you decide local strawberries are the most delicious things on earth and you prefer to risk pesticide residue for a short season once a year and support small farms nearby, you’re going local, especially when you can locate low-sprayed local.  Soon you will arrive at your working ratio of organic to local.  One suggestion: If you’re feeding kids, choose organic over local but lightly sprayed when buying what the Environmental Working Group refers to as “The Dirty Dozen” – the twelve most contaminated conventional fruits and vegetables.

Buy these organic:

Peach, Apple, Bell Pepper, Celery, Nectarine, Strawberry, Cherry, Kale, Lettuce, Grapes, Carrot, Pear.”


Once you’ve decided about if you’re going local or organic (or both), indulge and enjoy. Ultimately the point of all of this fretting is flavor. And nothing tastes better than strawberries in season.

Now you know.