How Green Is Your Wine? Spotlight on Danny Seo and Philosophy Wine

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Green-living guru Danny Seo has recently broken the vino-barrier, unleashing the first of what he hopes will be a full portfolio of wines called “Philosophy” that meet his “Change One Thing” mantra by offering tasty and sustainably produced wine at an affordable, everyday-drinkable price point (under $20). The first offerings, a 2011 Zinfandel and a 2012 Sauvignon Blanc, both come from organic-certified sources in Mendocino county.

Okay: organic. It’s a quibble-inspiring term. To some people, it’s automatic shorthand for “better tasting and better for you and better for the environment.” To others, it’s a marketing ploy to get a $4 dollar gallon of milk to sell for $8 because of mysterious un-seeable un-tastable “toxins” and a load of… compost. Some feel “organic” doesn’t go nearly far enough: it’s a government-owned and coopted term that has Jacques to do with whether the product is truly sustainable or truly clean or truly better in any way.

The truth is, organic certification standards, whether for lettuce or Cabernet Sauvignon, might result in a product that tastes better (if your raspberries traveled from an organic producer thousands of miles away, they’ll probably still be disappointing. Plus there’s that whole carbon footprint thing). Organic probably means more humane production circumstances (there are exceptions: chicken is one. Look it up). There are tons of farms and products that are clean, sustainable, eco-forward and awesome who do not choose to obtain organic certification, for any number of reasons (including the perceived taint of, um, hippiedom). However, if nothing else, when you buy organic-certified food products you are at the very least voting for a system that is required by law to vastly reduce the amounts of pesticide chemicals, antibiotics, hormones and other creepy additives being applied to the planet and to your body. Trust me, this is a good start.

OK: Danny Seo did not invent organic wine – it used to be the only kind there was, and today it exists in pretty much every major wine-producing country, and ranges from boutiquey prestige bottles (Hello Grgich!) to maverick stuff that’s exciting and a tiny bit… feral (Tony Coturri, that bottle all but uncorked itself and started quoting Aleister Crowley at me). However, Seo has a well-established platform and good, reasonable ideas, and his “Philosophy” label goes beyond what is or isn’t sprayed on the grapes by extending to water conservation practices and bottling. These are good things. A sound… Philosophy, if you will.

But first thing’s first: is this wine good?

These are both very classic and approachable Mendocino County wines. The Sauvignon Blanc, which I found wanted to be served pretty ice-cold, is super-drinkable and displays good structure, focused minerality, a citrusy bouquet with something slightly tropical underlying it, clear lemon and lime notes (and a faint suggestion of pears) on the palate. Bright, not overly acidic—a very versatile food wine you’d want to have around for the goat cheese you just unwrapped or the chicken you just took off the grill.

The Zinfandel is the less-jammy, more restrained iteration you tend to find when this grape is grown at higher and cooler elevations. Less of a blackberry-fest, in fact primarily plums on the nose for me (and arrived just in time to be paired with the last of my Santa Rosas, oven-roasted). Velvety mouthfeel, exceedingly food friendly (as with most Zins, there is an affinity for grilled meats, but it certainly needn’t stop there), flavor profile favors berries and cedar with a little vanilla…I think it’s really quite nice.

It doesn’t stop with organic farming, either. Seo’s winery partner (who is an unnamed, silent partner, more on which in a minute) is an ace water conservationist, which is actually really important (depending on the source and the region, you might hear estimates of anywhere from 75 to over 400 gallons of water to produce a gallon of wine, and while no one’s going to attain Jesus of Nazareth’s miraculous 1:1 at the Feast of Cana, those numbers are generally indicative of some mindlessness in water use)—they reuse and recycle all water available for it. American made bottles use a thinner glass and highly recyclable screw caps. All in all, this is wine you can feel good about drinking.

In regions where people are still convinced “organic” is for gullible, tie-dye wearin’ Wavy Gravy types, I think Danny Seo stands to make a large impact. In fact, if he encourages more producers to explore biodynamic practices, dry-farming, carbon neutrality, lighter-footprint packaging and to really take a hard look at how they are using water in their production practices, fantastic. None of this would work if these wines sucked. They don’t. They’re extremely agreeable and I have had more expensive ones that I liked less.

Are you sensing a “Big But?”

The PR material I received with the wine said: “Philosophy Wines are green without being crunchy.”

And you know what? That is not groundbreaking. In fact I am wondering if Mendocino, the AVA these wines purportedly come from, will be a place where they sell well. I’m guessing no. Why not? Because of their nose of non-winemaker who wants his brand on a bottle, a little Focus Group on the palate, with a long finish of “I Didn’t Know This Was Already A Thing.”

Let me say again that these wines are very drinkable and I wholeheartedly approve of the propagation of sustainable farming and production. Thing is, so do a zillion wineries from Alto Adige to Argentina to Napa County. In Northern California, we are well aware that organic wine is not… “crunchy,” and I suspect this reviewer isn’t going to be the only person who finds that a tad patronizing. It also obscures a really important (really really important) fact about wine and all things that grow out of the ground or eat things that grow out of the ground and end up on your dinner table.

Which is simply this. “Organic” is a descriptor doled out by the government. Source is a real, tangible thing. Many wineries in driving distance of… well, of Mendocino (I have no idea which actual winery makes this wine, that’s apparently classified for no good reason I can think of) are doing amazing, audacious, big-sky-thinking stuff with their farming and production practices. Many of them are organic (or organic plus) and are not certified by the government. Many of them would not qualify for organic certification for some technicality, and yet are cleaner and smaller-footprint than some certified wineries are. You find this out from getting to know the folks who make what you’re eating. Seo’s endeavor deliberately obscures that, and I think it’s a huge check in the bummer column. I understand that not all of us have the extraordinary privilege of being able to jump in the car on a whim and spend the day at a sustainability-forward winery like Quivira or Grgich or Preston, or whoever the Mystery-date winery is that ghost-produces Philosophy. I myself wish I could jump in the car and spend the day in Trentino quaffing Kerners and Lagreins with biodynamic producers there. And for those who cannot, people like Danny Seo can be hugely helpful in winnowing off a layer of chaff: the brand delivers what it claims to deliver—tasty, affordable wines you can feel good about buying.

Fabulous! It is right and good to point out that organic wine is better for your body and the environment in which your body must live, and someone like Seo vetting the stuff makes it really easy to reach for out of a shelf of similarly priced “Wines of Un-Researched Provenance.” And let me say it again lest I sound like I’m being a whiny critic: I would not recommend that if I didn’t think the wine tasted good. It tastes good. Really.

Some of us want more. Some of us actually expect more. For some of us this is not “philosophy” at all; it’s in the goes-without-saying box already. For some of us, wine is about—please pay attention, this matters—relationships. That is the Je Ne Sais What that is arguably missing from these wines. And you know, it won’t matter to everyone. But wine is something winemakers put their souls into. In the best wines, that—soul, animus, psyche—is the haunting, lingering note you taste on that last sip. Nothing replaces the amazing feeling of growing your own, picking your own, or short of that, being close to the folks who do. Watching them, talking to them, listening to them, learning from them why they make the choices they make. Philosophy’s initial offerings are well-made, accessible wines. But, not to be, er, crunchy—you can taste the anonymity.

Seo is 100% correct: our choices matter. Every dollar you spend is a vote for or against a cleaner planet with a longer lifespan. And not everyone can taste anonymity, so I vote that you, reader, seek this stuff out, especially if you live in an area where organic wines are hard to come by, or if you are not particularly a wine-person and kind of want the safety net of knowing something is good at what it does and gives what it claims it will give. Let me put it this way—showing up with this stuff to a casual dinner party will telegraph the following: I care. I am not in favor of wastefulness. I do not think organic wine is for dingbats. This is a good message. May we all spread that gospel.

Meanwhile, many of us, maybe particularly on the maverick West Coast, do not consider buying organic or sustainably sourced food and drink “crunchy.” We consider it common sense unless a comparable non-organic product is just leaps and bounds better. And we treasure individuality and personality—in everything, not least in what we pour with dinner. And there are lots of craftsmen out here who know a lot about “green” living and also get their hands dirty in vineyards and wineries year after year. The Philosophy wines themselves are very nice. I hope the lightweight “philosophy” behind it, presented as a revelation even though it has long been embraced by wineries around the world, serves the very needful mission of encouraging mindful consumption and doesn’t disappear in a haze of corporate storytelling.