Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The battle over organic wine: an update

Why isn't there more organic wine? That was the title of an article I wrote earlier this year for the Los Angeles Times, and also of a seminar I participated in last week at the Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim.

I didn't realize, standing on stage like a fool explaining the three-tier distribution system, that most of the audience were people who already make either USDA Organic wine or wine from organically grown grapes. The organic wine world is tiny and insular compared to the universe of organic products, and the Expo was a great example.

I hadn't been to the Expo before, and if you're an organic consumer like myself, it was a dream. Practically every company whose logo you see in Whole Foods was there, and plenty you haven't heard of yet. The Expo took up two whole floors of the massive Anaheim Convention Center; in about 8 hours over two days I didn't see it all. With thousands of healthy foods and drinks to sample, who could?

So it was depressing to go to the associated organic wine tasting and see only 13 companies in a small room in the neighboring hotel. I tasted a few good wines -- notably from La Rocca Vineyards, a no-sulfite winery that I'll write about in more detail later -- but frankly, much of what I tasted was, well, meh.

The reason was mostly economic. Most of the wines shown, both domestic and imports, were cheap. Certainly there were some that represent good value at $10.

The problem is that wealthier Whole Foods shoppers, who insist on organic milk and yogurt and ayurvedic toothpaste, and are willing to pay plenty for exotic probiotics, have moved on to other supposed eco-friendly categories when it comes to wine.

DON'T let me give the impression for even one second that I am not a firm believer in organic viticulture. In fact, that was my main point in the seminar: that in-fighting among the passionate organic crowd over the issue of sulfites has forced most wine lovers to simply move on.

Certified organic viticulture is on the rise in total acreage in California, and that's a good thing. But organic wines are surpassed in stores by biodynamic wines, and sustainable wines, and wines that offer Fish Friendly Farming and any number of other nebulous, possibly uncertified green claims.

It's unnatural. In the entire Natural Products Expo West, I saw one Demeter-certified biodynamic food company; they were importing tea leaves. I didn't see companies touting their sustainable business practices. What I saw were dozens and dozens of food companies that are certified USDA Organic. You just don't see that with wine.

I don't need to rehash my LA Times story about the sulfite issue; I encourage you to read it. But I will give this update: The petition I wrote about is not scheduled to be heard until next fall. In the interim the anti-sulfite believers are collecting signatures to keep the status quo; they were doing so at the Expo. In January I was told there are already thousands of letters to the NOP opposing the addition of sulfites to organic wine.

Unfortunately the main issue that has been used to mobilize these troops is a misnomer: that sulfites are a known allergen. That may be true (though the majority of people who think they're allergic to sulfites are not.) But it also doesn't matter -- the USDA doesn't exist to regulate allergens; if it did, we would have no organic peanuts. I'm allergic to tomatoes, but I don't oppose organic salsa.

The fair issue to discuss is whether preservatives of any kind should be allowed in an organic product. The problem is that without sulfites, organic wines (with the very rare exceptions from La Rocca) aren't long-lived enough to survive this country's legally mandated distribution system for alcohol.

Despite what my regular readers might think, I wasn't the speaker who ticked off the crowd; that was Hollywood organic chef Akasha Richmond, who stirred folks up by pointing out that her green-loving customers only buy wines that taste good. I loved her analogy: "If I burn a steak, I can't make you eat it by saying it's organic." Some of the makers of USDA Organic wines without sulfites had their backs up, complaining that we were saying that all of their wines taste bad.

I'm not saying that. In fact, after tasting the La Rocca lineup, I think they'll do just fine if USDA Organic wines are allowed to contain sulfites. No-sulfite wines will continue to be a plus for some consumers, and the La Roccas deliver some good ones.

But -- how can I put this tactfully -- the La Rocca no-sulfite wines stand out because they're drinkable. Some of the other no-sulfite wines that I tasted had obvious problems; some I might not have identified as wine, instead of sour beer, in a blind taste test. They were Chef Akasha's burned steak, in a bottle. Except I'd rather eat burned steak. (Boy, now I'm making friends.)

And it's a problem that these wineries have hijacked what should be a big category. The organic wine (NOT organic grape) community has become a group of zealots, small enough to fit in a conference room. They all love the earth, hate pesticides, fear agribusiness, and agree on practically everything else BUT sulfites.

Meanwhile, the green-minded wine drinker, and there are many because the demographics of wine drinkers closely track the demographics of organic consumers, wades through a Whole Foods "eco-friendly" wine section full of unsubstantiated claims about environmental goodness.

In California a wine can be certified sustainable if Roundup was used or if pesticide was used. That's not what I want in wine. But with so few wineries going through the rigor of the USDA Organic program -- because they can't use sulfites -- I have no idea how much pesticide I'm sampling every week.

After the Expo I wandered across the street to Downtown Disney for dinner at their ersatz New Orleans restaurant, where I had a decent version of shrimp and grits. I ordered a half bottle of Starmont Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc and saw on the back label that their estate vineyard is Napa Green farming. What that means, I have no idea. The wine list had not one USDA Organic wine on it.


Sequoiagrapeboy said...

Thank you for another very well thought out and honest post. I enjoyed reading it and agree with you whole-heartedly.

I, too, have many problems with how "organic" is used in regards to wine. It is totally screwy that we are not allowed to use the word organic unless both the vineyard and the winery are certified and there are no added sulfites.

First off, how does not certifying a winery (processor) magically negate the simple fact that a grape was grown organically? If a grower --like me -- chooses to jump through every hoop in order to certify their vineyard and incur the high cost of doing so, why should I have to go through even more (unnecessary) hoops to certify my winery? I really am not that guy that believes in the conspiracy thing but… Is this just a ploy to make organic farming and selling products from organic operations so incredibly onerous that no one in their right or economic mind would dare exist?

Then we move onto the sulfate issue... as you touched on. Really? How does adding 30ppm of SO2, again, negate the fact that almost 99.9% of wine is made from the grape? I have pulled my hair out regarding both these issues, written the USDA numerous times (great bureaucracy there, let me tell you), spoken until blue with supporters and protagonists but always end up with the same kerfuffle.

True, I believe wine drinkers are tired of this issue and would just as well like to move on. It’s too much to process. Let’s be real here, we’re all just out for some decent wine we can afford that will get the job done. Debating what’s organic, what’s better, what’s greener or more or less sustainable is not only highly subjective but in the case of “organic” regulated and boiler-plated beyond most wine drinkers attention level.

I am tired as well of the zealots (in many arenas) and they should butt out when it comes to how the word “organic” is used and designated when it comes to wine. Allow those farmers that are conscious enough to grow and certify their operations the bone of calling their product organic (because it is) even if they use 40ppm SO2…

W. Blake Gray said...

Thanks Sequoia. I want 100% organically grown grapes -- or any fruit, really -- whenever I can get them, and I want regulations that encourage this.

Sondra said...

Good informative article. I, too, have been disappointed in wines labeled organic. Organically grown grapes are what's important in Europe, why the anti-sulfite zealots got their way is a mystery to me. Was it really about pseudo allergens or something else?

Christian Miller said...

Consumer research has indicated that lack of visibility and distribution for organic and sustainable wines is a major barrier, more so than any objections or dislike for such wines. It has also shown that the closer a product is to its natural state, the more important "green" attributes are for personal health reasons. So organic is more important for raw grapes than grape juice, which in turn is probably more impacted than grape jelly or wine.

Organic methods were developed in part to limit ingestion of chemical residues and in part to combat their impact on local environments. They do not necessarily do much about global warming, arguably the leading current environmental concern. That's where sustainability concepts become important.

Is there any hard evidence that more than a handful of consumers distinguish between organic wine and wine made from organic grapes? From an environmental impact perspective, just what does that last step of organic winemaking really add?

Anecdotally (and that's all you see in the public sphere), consumer perceptions of sulfites in wine are chaotic and inchoate, a total mess.

It's a very complicated topic.

Anonymous said...

Is it not possible to explain the organic nature of the vineyard as part of your back label regradless of the winery or any certifications? By this I mean a simple "this is how we grow our fruit" as opposed to "Certified".

W. Blake Gray said...

Anon: It is my understanding that it should not be possible to get TTB approval of the use of the word "organic" on the label without actually using certified organic grapes. The same is true for "biodynamic," because that can be certified, but not "green," "natural," "sustainable," "eco-friendly" or any other term like that.

However, companies using greenwashing terms with no cover, such as that provided by the Wine Institute's certified sustainability program, must fear the federal government, which has the power to investigate claims as fraudulent.

Anonymous said...

I see. But couldn't you describe your procedures at length? "We do not use herbicides, we do not use pesticides", and so on. This is simply stating facts about your farming practices and not identifying yourself as falling under one of these "term umbrellas".

It would give someone like yourself (who seeks grapes grown without these treatments) enough detail to make an informed purchase.

W. Blake Gray said...

Anon: You could. I don't know if anybody is doing so. But to my knowledge there's no reason you couldn't.

Now the challenge is getting customers to turn your bottle around on the shelf and read the back label.

Pete said...

Love the exposure and insight that you are bringing to this issue, Blake. Good stuff.

chilegoddess said...

After reading your blog I am a little bit confused, because the grapes that are grown organically have a category: Made with Organic grapes. The wine that is produced organically has a category: USDA certified Organic wine. So recognizing these two categories we are not compromising the true integrity of organic. *True* organic should not contain any synthetic chemical whether it be wine, bread, fruit, vegetable or pizza! As a wine drinker and organic consumer, I am quite pleased with the different categories and feel that a change would only be confusing and misleading to the organic consumer.
Just as GMOs introduced into Natural food are accepted as permissible in the Organic market, the Organic consumer does not want this. We do not want synthetic sulfites introduced into organic wine to be considered organic.
I do agree with your assessment of the taste and value of La Rocca vineyards organic, no sulfite wines.

W. Blake Gray said...

Chile: What about naturally derived sulfites?

chilegoddess said...

Not all wines contain sulfites. Naturally occurring sulfites may or may not occur during fermentation depending on the yeast and temperature during fermentation at the time. There are many wines tested by the BATF laboratories that will actually test out at zero parts per million. Naturally occurring sulfites are bonded where the synthetic sulfite is not.
So as mentioned before; recognizing these two categories we are not compromising the true integrity of organic. *True* organic should not contain any synthetic chemical

W. Blake Gray said...

Chile: I respect your position but I don't agree with it.

As I said at the seminar, and as I'm sure you know well, the legally mandated three-tier distribution system means that retailers and consumers cannot take steps of their own to get fresh non-sulfite wine to their doors as quickly as is needed.

The taste of organic wine without sulfites will always hold back the category because wine is burdened by the time of distribution in a way that unpreserved products like apple juice are not.

chilegoddess said...

Respectfully, I disagree with the fact that people cannot get non sulfite wines to their doors when it is needed. There are non sulfite wines being sold in all 50 states, Netherlands, Germany, England, Japan, China, New Zealand, Australia Taiwan, Canada and Hong Kong that I know of. I can go to many stores in my area and choose from a variety of them. The point I am trying to make is that adding a synthetic to an organic product will change the integrity of the organic product and will open a can of worms in the organic industry. Can you imagine GMOs being allowed in organic food? Wines that are made with Organically grown grapes is enough for some, but when I want a 100% organic wine. I want no sulfites and I know many who agree with me. Thanks.

W. Blake Gray said...

Chile: Sulfites in wine do not equal GMOs.

One of the things that bothers me most about the argument over adding sulfites to organic wine is when people do what you just did.

Adding sulfites to a bottle a wine affects -- saves, improves -- that bottle of wine. It has no impact on another farmer's crop.

chilegoddess said...

I know Sulfites do not equal GMOs. I was giving you a very broad reach of what could happen when you open a can of worms regarding organics.
I was suggesting what if a GMO crop product, say soy lecithin was allowed in Organic bread, or a preservative such as BHA and BHT or potassium bromate, or Calcium Propionate. These are not organic and neither are sulfites. If synthetic products are allowed in any organics what you have is *not* organic.
That is all I am saying. So have your wine and drink it any way you want to. I want mine 100% organic.

W. Blake Gray said...

Chile: Wine is not distributed, stored or consumed like other food products.
Your exaggerated hypothetical examples would not have the support of the organic wine grape growers who are behind the proposed change to allow added sulfites in organic wine.

Anonymous said...

Thanks! Love your info on organic wines. I've also had some of that burnt steak in a bottle & was looking for some reviews to find a decent organic wine. Seems to me the USDA could easily solve this problem by creating 2 categories of organic certification for wine... one with sulfites & one without... then the consumer could decide & know we're not drinking Roundup & supporting the corporate takeover of our food supply.