Friday, October 22, 2010

Organic wine standards could change for the better

The Huffington Post occasionally notices wine, but politics are its main gig. When it does run a wine piece, it's apparently edited by people who don't know anything about the topic; some of its wine pieces have been embarrassing.

This week, the Huffington Post ran an innocuous, poorly written and edited piece about organic wine that nobody seemed to read; there are no comments.

Yet it's actually a huge story, about US law regarding organic wine possibly changing for the better.

Here's the deal. Currently, US law does not allow wines labeled as "organic wine" to contain any added sulfites. This is bad because sulfites preserve the fresh fruit flavors in wine. A wine without added sulfites is vulnerable to spoilage, and in any case can not be expected to last long on the shelf.

US law is out of sync with European law. The French in particular recognize the necessity of adding sulfites to wine; most of the "organic wines" you see from France have sulfites added.

This silly restriction is the reason I (and other wine writers) have discouraged readers for years from buying wines labled "organic wine." Instead, if you care about the environment and the way your wine grapes were farmed, I encourage you to drink wines labeled "made from organically grown grapes," or biodynamic wine.

The reason US law developed this way is because the federal bureau in charge of US wine law (now known as the TTB) is usually reactive, rather than active. The TTB doesn't make policy; instead, it responds to petitions from businesses to make changes, such as creating new American Viticultural Areas.

I've been told the original applications for an official "organic wine" designation on US wine labels were led by anti-sulfite zealots at a time, decades ago, when few wineries cared about organic wine because it was a tiny niche. Most wineries didn't want to use the label anyway, so nobody fought very hard over how the regulations were written.

Now, organic anything is a big category, and more wine companies want in. But they want to rewrite the standards to allow added sulfites so their wine won't smell like dirty socks after a year on the shelf.

On the surface, this sounds like a Huffington Post story -- wine companies want to weaken organic standards.

But look at the company that, according to the story, has made the proposition. It's not The Wine Group or Gallo or Constellation: it's "Organic Vintners," a tiny wine importer that apparently has two employees (they haven't returned my calls.) And right on its home page, the company brags that one advantage of organic wine is that it's low in sulfites. This is not an agribusiness.

That said, the size of the companies here is immaterial. What matters is that many consumers' desire for a wine made through responsible, safer farming is being held hostage by a tiny minority who think sulfites are bad.

Ronnie Cummins, director of the "Organic Consumers Association," wrote the Huffington Post piece. I'm sure he's well-meaning; organic food standards are under constant attack from agribusiness. But he clearly knows nothing about wine, because he writes a lot about the USDA and doesn't mention the TTB, which has jurisdiction over wine labels. It's not clear to me from reading his piece that he has ever had a glass of wine in his life.

Wine lovers can't let people like this decide on standards for wine labels. I want "organic wine" on a label to mean something other than "unpreserved wine that probably tastes bad." I want it to mean what it does in France: "lovingly farmed wine made from grapes not exposed to pesticides and herbicides."

I want to throw my support behind Paolo Mario Bonetti, Organic Vintners and their attempt to change US organic wine label standards for the better.

So my first call (metaphorically speaking) is to the Huffington Post, to do a better job on this issue. Assign a real reporter and a real editor; don't let somebody who knows nothing about it write an opinion piece.

And Paolo, give me a call. I'm on your side.


W. Blake Gray said...

PS. Note to software-savvy bloggers: Blogger recently put an array of social-media contact logos at the bottom of each of my posts (Facebook, email, etc.), but they don't seem to work. Any suggestions on how I can either make them work, or make them go away?

Alan Baker said...

Cheers to you. I did read that post but just rolled my eyes thinking there was no way to comment on something so clearly off target.

I do wish we could make organic mean something in the domestic wine biz.

Alan Baker
Cartograph wines

Edward Field said...

Thank you for addressing this issue.

We are "living" your arguments as an importer of organic wines in the US.
We import both "organic" and "made with organic grapes" wines so have "skin in the game" on both sides of this outcome.

The "purity" of the Organic Standards has come into question and we can understand the OCA's reaction.

However, we strongly believe that something must be adopted (similar to a European stance) that prevents confusion in the market. I have personally viewed countless examples of confused organic wine label reading consumers that simply back away from a sector that they see as a confusing mess. If something is not adapted (think: for our consumers - our common goal) then we may continue as a fringe afterthought for serious wine aficionados. At
this point we sadly are relegated to one of the smallest percentages of overall sales of any category in the market. This should tell us all something - it's not working.

Consumer education should be our common goal. A unified proposition towards making organic wines (overall) more approachable to consumers should bring us together rather than forcing us to stake out sides.

Edward Field
Founder - Natural Merchants, LLC

W. Blake Gray said...

Alan: Thanks.

Edward: After reading your comment twice, I think I know what your position is.
Your opinion is this debate is important. If you want it to have more weight, I suggest you make it easier to find.

Example: I support loosening the restrictions on added sulfites for American wines labeled "organic wine." said...

Hoorah! Thanks for writing this -finally this issue is getting some traction! As I mentioned in my article on the same subject a few weeks ago, the OCA are shooting themselves and everyone else in the foot with this.

Poorly made sulfur free wines are letting the organic team down badly, and slowing the potential growth of a market which promises not only fantastic tasting wine "made with organic grapes" but more significantly from a health/environmental perspective slows the expansion of organic/sustainable farming.

What's the bigger evil, a tiny drop of sulfur dioxide (and by all means lets keep the levels as low as possible), or poor quality sulfur free wine which turns everyone off and kills the market of organic wine farming? It seems obvious to me!

My vote is to change labeling to Organic Wine - with added sulfites and Organic Wine - without added sulfites.

W. Blake Gray said...

Matthew, I'm glad we agree on this. Yours is a key voice in this discussion.

Erika Szymanski said...

May I add my thanks and kudos to the list? Reading your post has saved me from having to suffer through Huffingtonian semantic nightmares.

From the perspective of an organic food maven and oenophile who tends to view debates such as this from principals rather than business ramifications, not permitting sulfur in organic wines is nonsensical. What is the purpose of "organic" agriculture, including organic viticulture? I think that the response of most consumers (I am not qualified to speak for viticulturists or winemakers) would center around healthy and sustainable land stewardship including growing grapes without pesticides and insecticides and such. Using sulfur dioxide in the winemaking process has (to the best of my knowledge) no negative ramifications on environmental health. Prohibition against "artificial ingredients" is part of organic food classification and should rightly be analogous for organic wine, but sulfur dioxide is not an artificial ingredient.

How good it is when business acumen and good sense agree!

Unknown said...

You guys keep harping on "poorly made" non-sulfite wines, implying that the fingers skill is in question. That may be true, but the solution is not to dilute the label by throwing wines loaded with preservatives and other inorganic chemicals. The organic label means organic from growth straight to your table. If the organic ingredients are processed in a way that adds non-organic ingredients or elements of course you can't label the final product as organic!

I'm not in the wine world myself but I would happily drink a well made truly organic wine over something loaded with chemicals. It may not affect the environment to have a little extra SO2 but it sure as heck affects taste and health. Sulfites are a common migraine trigger and allergen, in addition to adding a very peculiar taste.

Its just silly to say that because there aren't many wines that are truly organic that in your estimation are "well made" and keep well therefore we need to loosen the restrictions so they are no longer organic. The logical conclusion to your argument is not changing definitions, but encouraging more quality organic wineries.

Santo said...

Oh we read it, just not sure how to comment on it.

Jeff V. said...

Blake, Thank you for posting this. It is socking how behind wine is in the greater organic movement.

Labeling HAS been the key issue with the BioD, Organic, Natural, and even Sustainable wines from being a powerhouse category. Scan that wine aisle and tell me which ones are organic, biodynamic, or sustainable.

In the coming months there will be a resource to relieve the consumer of this confusion and will hopefully allow the producers of 'organic' wines a bit more attention. I would rather not get too specific right now, but I will in due time.

As for Organic Vintners, I have also failed to receive a response from them on various questions I have had over the years.....

Ed, I have reached out to you as well regarding a few of your products, but have heard nothing.

Matthew, great resource you have, I will be reading it all day and contact you via your website.

Remkade, it is clear that you need to be reminded that our bodies produce sulfites everyday. It is also worth noting that those "organic" dried fruits contain more sulfites than in a bottle of wine.

Sulfites are not the problem. It is not an evil chemical, but a naturally producing component of life.....

Sulfite use in wine under 100ppm is an extremely safe amount, most organic/biodynamic producers use far less than 100ppm.

What is sad, is that those nice folks who shop at Trader Joes and step on each other to get to all of those organic products are the same folks who pick up a CASE of 2BC. I wonder what would happen if they became as educated on wine as they are on produce or potato chips?

CMarlin said...

Bravo! Jeff V on your lucid and correct comments...
One of the reasons we chose Sustainable vs Organic in the way we farm our vineyard is because the organic pesticides approved for use (do consumers even know there's such a thing?) affect a wide swath of insects while the pesticides approved for sustainable growing affect only the insect you are trying to address and leave all other nature alone. So, this issue is much more complex and requires a more in depth conversation than just quick judgements based on "sound bites". Hopefully, SIP certfication logos on labels will allow concerned consumers to understand that our work has been thoroughly inspected and approved by a governing body and holds great integrity.

W. Blake Gray said...

Remkade: I need to accomplish two things in responding to you.
1) I need to be polite, because as you admit, you're not "in the wine world." From your post, I take it that you also don't know much about wine. And I want to encourage you to drink more and learn more.
2) I need to point out to other readers that because you don't know much about wine, your argument is wrong. You don't understand that sulfites are a necessary component for quality winemaking.

It's as if you're saying, you can't find someone who can play shortstop well without a glove, so you need to train more effective players.

Thanks for reading my blog, and for caring about the earth.

Jeff V: I agree with you and simply want to clarify to Remkade and others that most wine producers -- biodynamic or conventional -- use less than 100 ppm of sulfites.

If you want to avoid high-added-sulfite wines because you have a sensitivity, avoid supermarket brand whites, especially those with fruit from warm areas. But even those will have fewer sulfites than a few pieces of dried fruit. If you can eat dried fruit, you can handle the sulfites in any wine, even the most mass-produced.

CMarlin: That's a big can of worms (arthropods if you prefer) that I'd prefer to get into on another post -- and trust me, I will. Let's just stick to sulfites on this one.

Unknown said...

Thanks for this informative discussion for wine consumers. As a small winery owner, we are stepping into our 4th year of developing our small operation biodynamically. In three more years we will be producing a line of biodynamic wines for our customers. At the present time we are using approx. 80 ppm sulfites. I have asthma and a great sensitivity to sulfites. However, Under 100 ppm I am not effected. No one has pointed out yet that the TTB regulation for use of sulfite is capped at 300ppm. Larger producers often use the upper SO2levels to hold their wines much longer for shelf life, export, and long distance distribution. A small amount of sulfites can assist producers to reach consumers with excellent wines, not only well grown and made but appropriately preserved.

Shelley Maly said...

Once again, thank you. The fact that you take the time to educate yourself on the facts and present them in a clear, concise manner will most certainly help educate consumers on the truth surrounding this issue. The bigger question is, how do we educate the masses and once and for all lay to rest the misconceptions about the term "organic" as it applies to wine? Thanks for your efforts Blake.