Jeffrey Weissler samples a vintage during a workshop he taught on “conscious wines” at Noble Coffee in Ashland.

The Conscious Grape

Given the choice, we'd all choose wine that not only tastes great, but is good for us and good for the planet, right?

That's the starting point for Jeffrey Weissler of Ashland, who evaluates wineries in Oregon and California and puts them on his list of Conscious Wines. The list allows earth-conscious wine lovers to select wines that meet four criteria: No synthetic chemicals were used in the vineyards; they use practices that "support the vitality of the land for our kids' kids and beyond;" they reflect the unique character of the land; and they "rock," which means they taste great.

Why do they taste great? Because they're made in a conscious way by people who are tuned into the land and honor nature above the bottom line, says Weissler, as he teaches one of his workshops on Conscious Wine at Noble Coffee in Ashland.

"In making wine, you minimize the input. Conventional agriculture says get it to the shelf as easily and quickly as possible. But in biodynamic farming, you see the farm as a self-regulating organism. You nurture the asset. You don't draw on resources outside," says Weissler.

It's important to note that "conscious wine" does not necessarily mean "organic wine," which is considered by some consumers to be unstable due to the absence of sulfites, he says.

To make the Conscious Wine list, you would have to grow your grapes organically, of course, but Weissler says that, to be stable, wines need sulfites, and adding sulfites means you can't call them organic.

"So consumers are becoming more flexible. People want to know more about the sources of what they drink," says Weissler.

"Biodynamic is more strict than organic, more holistic, and a lot of wonderful wines are biodynamically safe," says Weissler, who offers classes called "Demystifying Natural Wine, The Wine & Food Experience" (about food and wine pairing), "Wine and Health" and "The Wine Store Jungle," about sustainable wine buying.

Natural wine, he says, comes from land where growers understand and support all the cycles of nature, including finding out what animals originally lived there and helping to reestablish them, heeding the expanding and contracting cycles of the moon in planting and harvesting and learning dry farming, so roots are encouraged to grow more deeply.

He even encourages wine lovers not to be seduced by fancy labels, noting, "If you see an ugly label, buy it!"

Also, wine drinkers should not be swayed by wines made to taste good at first sip, he notes.

"If it tastes good on the first sip, be suspicious," he says. A wine is like a book, and you can't judge it by the cover or what's on page one. It may get its best at page 259, he says, meaning that a good, natural wine may want to breathe a lot longer than you think — and may still be good days later.

Weissler warns consumers to be leery of intensive, unnatural farming practices — which he refers to as "monoculture" — and says that "if you've heard of a wine, be suspicious," meaning, essentially, that less is more.

"Wines need to be made by the unique soul of the place," he adds. "Biodynamic farming means you use the assets of a farm. You become relational with the land. You use less and less inputs. You create a self-regulating organism of which you are a part."

Phil Kavanagh of Ashland, a student at a Weissler class on pairing food with natural wines, says, "It's important to me to place growing and consuming wine in the larger picture of a sustainable economy and to make us conscious of the price we pay for wine — and not just on the sticker."

Michael Donovan, managing director of RoxyAnn Winery and past president of Southern Oregon Winery Association, says wineries in the state are doing a very good job with environmental practices, using little or no synthetic chemicals, so the land will be supported for future generations.

Third-party certification is a positive step, Donovan adds, and with the growing number of labels such as Salmon-Safe, LIVE (Low Input Viticulture and Enology), Food Alliance, Demeter Biodynamic or USDA Organic, consumers can feel environmentally confident in wine buying.

Weissler, who has 27 years on the retail side of wine, most of it in New York state, is just starting his Conscious Wine business and says he will soon have DVDs, blogs and webinars on the subject. See his Web site at www.consciouswine.com.

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