Brief background: Currently USDA certified organic wine is not allowed to contain more than 10 ppm (parts per million) of sulfites, even if those sulfites occur naturally. I wrote about the issue in this LA Times article, and about a petition making its way through the USDA process that would allow some limited amount of sulfites in organic wine.
Last week there were two days of brief hearings before the National Organic Standards Board. How brief? Speakers were given just 3 minutes to make their point, and no questions were asked.
Originally, Tuesday's hearing was scheduled to be the main one on the issue. But the NOSB postponed that indefinitely. The petitioners hope to get their hearing in November, but apparently that's not a sure thing.
However, the NOSB does have to allow public comment on issues before it. So the petitioners sent three of their members to the public-comment hearing to speak.
Though it's their petition, they didn't get to go first.
Phaedra LaRocca Morrill, sales and marketing director of LaRocca Vineyards*, a certified organic, no-sulfite winery in California, spoke first. She said sulfites are a synthetic that should not be allowed in wine; it's a powerful argument because most certified organic products cannot contain preservatives. She said organic vineyard acreage is increasing, and that 4 million cases of USDA Organic wine were sold in the US last year, which she said was testament to the strength of the category.
* (For more on LaRocca's wines, look for my column "Beating the Odds: Phil LaRocca" in Wine Review Online.)
Then Paolo Bonetti, president of Organic Vintners, a Colorado wine importer, spoke. Bonetti (my source for this summary, as I was not there) pointed out that only 0.1% of all wine sold in the US in 2010 was certified organic, making it a much weaker category than organic foods (about 3% of milk sold in the US is organic).
Bonetti said that Canada's organic regulations, which are nearly the same as the US' for most foods, allow sulfites in certified organic wine. (Apparently Australia and New Zealand do too.) Bonetti made a point I make all the time, that the weakness of organic wine as a category has led to a proliferation of "green" labels -- sustainable, natural, eco-friendly, etc. -- with nebulous or no certification process.
The final speaker for the let's-allow-sulfites petitioners was Andy Waterhouse. Bonetti sent me a transcript of his remarks, which I am posting below. I'll let Andy have the last word in this blog post. You may put your opinion in the comments. No flaming anyone, please. Those of us who care about organic wine at all -- 0.1% of wine drinkers? Seriously? -- have much more in common than not, so let's be civil to each other. Thanks.
"I am Andrew Waterhouse, a wine chemist, Professor and Chair of the Department of Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis. Our wine program is considered to be perhaps the best known in the world.
Dr. Andrew Waterhouse
Sulfites are a very simple product, made by taking elemental sulfur powder, the same stuff sprayed on organic crops, and burning it. This simple process has been used for hundreds or thousands of years, depending on which historians you believe. The traditional practice of burning sulfur candles in barrels continues up to today, and includes the makers of biodynamic wine and even organic wine in many countries outside the US.
At UC Davis we don't give our students recipes on how to make wine, but we inform them about the risks of certain practices.
Sulfites are used to reduce or eliminate the risk of unwanted yeasts and lactic acid bacteria, microbes normally associated with cheese, kimchee, pickle or yoghurt fermentations, and the aromas of those foods.
Sulfites also reduce problems from oxidation that would make a wine taste like nuts, sherry or cooked vegetables.
Today, these problems are never found in commercial wine, but I have easily found consumer comments on organic wines that can be linked directly back to the faults I mentioned, including references to other fermented foods and combinations with oxidation.
Without sulfites, wine is extremely perishable and should be refrigerated for its entire 1 year life cycle between harvests, and from winery to consumer. Unfortunately this is impossible in today's national wine distribution system. So, wines made without sulfites, especially the white wines, continue to show serious flaws. I am convinced that these persistent flaws are the reason the organic wine market is minuscule and will continue to be so.
On the health front, sulfite labeling has eliminated the public health danger of sulfite use. But some wine drinkers still have allergic reactions, an asthmatic reaction to wine. The latest medical research, by scientists studying sensitive asthmatic patients, is now calling into question whether sulfites are the cause of these reactions. Some exciting new papers have suggested alternative hypotheses, including the presence of wasp or bee venom, as published in the New England Journal of Medicine, or that wine grapes might have allergenic components themselves. At this point it is clear that more work is needed to find the actual cause of the allergic reactions to wine.
In closing I wanted to say that while investigating organic wine I was surprised to see that a number of websites, including the largest wine website, snooth.com, and my local Davis Food Coop, a bastion of organic food, are now using the term "Organic Wine" to classify mostly, if not all, wines that lack the USDA organic wine label.
It seems to me, although I am certainly no expert of market analysis, that the market is rapidly abandoning the term as defined by this board, perhaps because it is too restrictive to be useful."