Thursday, January 6, 2011

On the battle over "USDA Organic" wine

Rarely as a wine journalist have I been as happy to write a story as I was this one on the future of "organic wines" in the Los Angeles Times.

It's a story that almost every other media outlet has been getting wrong. The argument against adding sulfites is very convincing, if you don't know wine, and most environmental journalists don't.

Maybe -- just maybe -- my story can lead to a healthier environment, better wines, and more informed consumers. Wow, what a dream.

This blog post isn't intended to retell the story, so please go here and read it. What I want to do is add some perspective and answer some questions that I couldn't address with a print newspaper word count.

I interviewed a lot more winemakers than I quoted. In particular, I interviewed zealots from the "natural wine" crowd -- people who risk using only native yeasts and believe in minimal intervention. These folks sneer at mass-market winemaking, yet all of them said they add sulfites to their wines when necessary.
The reusable NPA bottle
The one that most surprised me was the Natural Process Alliance. This is the one winery in America that really doesn't need to add sulfites. Their wines are sold in reusable stainless steel bottles, only within 100 miles of the winery, and are intended to be consumed within a week. I don't know of a more environmentally concerned, idealistic winery.

And yet, it's even on their website: "Sulfur is used only when absolutely necessary and in very small quantities." Hardy Wallace, better known as a wine blogger than the NPA's sales and marketing rep, explained that for some batches of wine, it's a choice between adding sulfites or pouring them down the drain.

Matt Lickliter of Lioco Winery says the issue should not be whether sulfites are allowed in "USDA Organic wine," but how much should be allowed. He suggested a 50 ppm (parts per million) limit, which would probably be fought by most big companies, but would allow dedicated vintners to make their organically farmed, lovingly processed wines "organic." He wasn't the only winery guy to tell me that some of his wines exceed 10 ppm without any sulfur additions, because sulfites are naturally occurring.

What green-minded consumers might do is look at the substitutes people are buying for "organic wine" because that category is so small. "Certified sustainable," in California, allows you literally to throw all of your plastic trash in the Napa River. One year ago, "natural wine" was almost always made by idealists, but once the category got some traction, wineries without the same environmental commitment began to realize that "natural wine" has no standards whatsoever.

Currently the best type of wine for Earth lovers is "biodynamic" by default. It's a religion that's more than a little nutty, but it does force grape growers to lavish care on their vines and their soil. But its science is indefensible.

"USDA Organic wine" could be more widely produced, available and consumed than it is now. And it's important, because it's the easiest green-friendly category to understand. But it will require people who are passionate about the issue to study it more deeply. Ask some winemakers, ask some farmers, educate yourself.


Jacob said...

I enjoyed your article/blog post. I always thought that there was a long history of adding sulfites. Any idea how long the practice dates back?

W. Blake Gray said...

Hi Jacob, thanks for the kind words. I'm not an expert on the history, but apparently it dates back several hundred years. Apparently German winemakers used to burn sulfur candles to get the preservative effect. I'd have to ask a better wine historian to learn if the Romans used sulfites.

Jeff V. said...

You must be joking or it's just your British humor that is lost in translation here, but this statement:

"It's a religion that's more than a little nutty, but it does force grape growers to lavish care on their vines and their soil. But its science is indefensible. "

is so fraught with inaccuracies, it's almost laughable.

First, Biodynamics is not a religion. It never was and never will be. Would you care to explain why you 'believe' this way? Have you ever picked up an Old Farmers Almanac?

Second, the Biodynamic farmer is not 'forced' to lavish care on their vines. This is another ignorant statement.

Third, which science would you like to see? It is all there if you would like to research it.

Lastly, you should check the sulfite levels of USDA 'organic' dried fruits. Then, compare those by volume to a bottle of wine.

Then report back to us....

daniel said...

Wow, Jeff V. A little defensive? So he used the word forced instead of obligated (which growers are in order to meet Detmer cert guidelines)... big deal. No it's not a religion, but many practitioners are quite fanatical. And please point us to this science.

Biodynamics don't bother me one bit, but your rabid defense sure doesn't help my perception of it's supporters.

Wine is older than Biodynamics and Science. It really doesn't need either.

W. Blake Gray said...

Jeff: Some prefer to call biodynamics a philosophy. I call it a religion because not many philosophers are obligated to bury a cow horn full of manure.

Kent Benson said...

I’m glad you wrote the LA Times piece. It’s about time someone honestly approached this subject. There is so much misinformation about sulfites in wine, one of the worst is that sulfites cause headaches.

Working as a floor salesman in a wine shop, I get asked a lot about organic wines. Almost invariably, when I ask why they are interested, they say that sulfites give them headaches. Some have even told me that their doctor recommended they switch to organic wines to avoid headaches.

Even though this theory was discredited many years ago, it is amazingly persistent. An internet search of “wine headaches” results in thousands of links about sulfites in wine causing headaches.

The latest research by David Mills at UC Davis and others points to biogenic amines, such as tyramines, which arise as a byproduct of malolactic fermentation. This seems to be supported by my experience with customers (and my personal experience with wine headaches). When I ask them which wines give them the most trouble they most often say, “red wines and sometimes Chardonnays,” precisely those where malo is common.

Still, it seems there will always be those who, regardless of the evidence to the contrary, insist that anything added that isn’t “natural” must be bad. I’ve had little success convincing them otherwise. They are much more comfortable believing that sulfites are the problem, because it fits their paradigm.

I think the sulfite headache myth presents a big hurdle to the efforts of those attempting to change the organic certification requirements. As long as consumers are convinced that sulfites are a health risk, I think the current standards will rule.

John M. Kelly said...

Blake - this is actually a pretty good argument for composition labeling. The current 10ppm standard for "organic" labeling is arbitrary and meaningless, and as you rightly point out can exclude wines where producer action and intent is as Earth-friendly as can be imagined.

Instead of the current 10ppm detection limit, a rational composition labeling requirement would have an addition threshold. I would propose 40ppm.

Most people aren't aware that the level of sulfur dioxide in wine is not static. Over time sulfite is converted to sulfate by oxidation, and sulfite also reacts irreversibly with aldehydes. After a couple of years in bottle under cork most wines show zero sulfite by analysis.

W. Blake Gray said...

Kent: The Organic Consumers Association was nice enough to put me in touch with a number of the people who wrote letters to the National Organic Program. I asked all of the people who said they were allergic to sulfites if they could eat dried fruit. One said no; the rest said yes -- so about 6% of those who thought they are allergic to sulfites actually are. It's a tiny sample size, but it seems to fit with published research.

John: I'm a fan of composition labeling, but that's a big can of organic worms I don't want to open just now.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading your article very much, in fact, it was terrific - congratulations.
My recollection is that sulfur use dates back to Roman times and possibly further back. I’m perplexed over your trash bags into the Napa River comment; what’s the back story on that? If you do take a look at composition labeling I think you’ll run into a trade secrets issue – I certainly oppose it. However, I don’t think it will generate the discussion that Natural wines has, and clearly not to the passion that Biodynamics has, as evidenced by Jeff V’s comments.
Again, a great job,
Stu Smith

Austin and James said...

Thank you for writing a concise article on the subject. As a retail wine shop owner, tackling the question of sulfites and what categorizes "organic" is uber frustrating for both retailer and consumer. Thanks!