Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Sulfites in organic wine: An update

Here's an update on what's happening with the petition to allow sulfites in USDA Organic Wine.

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.

Dr. Andrew Waterhouse
"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.

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."


Cabfrancophile said...

Waterhouse is right. Organic wine should be permitted sulfites. Sulfur and copper sulfate are allowed as fungicides for the vines. Yet yeast, a member of the Fungi kingdom, cannot be managed via an effective fungicide post-fermentation. There's a double standard at play perpetuated by those who wrongly believe nothing done in the field is intervention, while anything added (except new oak, which is for some reason OK) is an abomination. It's all intervention; the key is to choose it artfully.

At best, the anti-sulfite producers are intellectually dishonest. More likely, they are intentionally trying to deceive the public. Let he who has never sprayed any compound on his vines ever cast the first stone.

alwaysaboutwine said...

I work in production and manage the lab in a 14000 case/year winery in the midwest. A couple of years ago I was on a tear about testing the FSO2 in organic wines. It was short-lived. The wines with serious flaws, always oxidized, had low levels of SO2. NONE of them were under 9ppm. In the wines that were pleasant, the numbers were as high as 29ppm with a pH of 3.3. This was certainly not a scientific study, and I am no expert, just an unbalanced, random sampling of wines I was choosing to drink at home. I would venture to guess if I kept going I would find some excellent examples of unflawed, unsulfited wines. Limited line item in my budget to keep experimenting so back to the sulfited catagory.

Paul Ahvenainen said...

It's time to move on, the market place has spoken. USDA organic wine has become a non-entity in the marketplace. Wines "made with organic grapes" are seen by the buying public as equivanent to "organic wine". Most consumers have absolutely no idea what the difference is.

Let's end the confusion and establish a common sense limited use of sulfites in USDA organic wine.

By the way, as an producer of CCOF certified "made from organic grapes" sparkling wine, we are already limited by CCOF to using SO2 gas, rather than the more common pottasium meta-bisulfite salt. I'm not totaly clear on why one is acceptible but the other is not. Perhaps it is because SO2 gas could be produced by burning elemental sulfur, although I doubt that that is how it is produced today.

Perhaps someone can enlighten me on this.

Anonymous said...

"Without sulfites, wine is extremely perishable and should be refrigerated for its entire 1 year life cycle between harvests, and from winery to consumer." Just think of all the energy that would be consumed do keep all these wines refrigerated for that year or more. That's something that should weigh in favor of added sulfites.

Anonymous said...

Questions: Do organic wineries have to be certified only by USDA to be able to put organic wine on their labels?
Can people get certified by an organization (member) of IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movement) that allow them to add sulfur to their wines as a preservative?
Are European wines allowed to add sulfur to their organic wines and if so, can an American winery get certified by an international agency that would allow them to use sulfur and say that the wine is organic? IMHO, if you want to be serious about organic you should be talking to the Europeans not to the USDA.

W. Blake Gray said...

Mauricio: The US agency responsible for regulating wine, the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau), will not approve for US sale a wine label that says "organic wine" on the front unless that wine is USDA certified. There is another category called "Made from Organic Grapes." Please follow the link to my LA Times story, it explains this in greater detail.

Greg Tuttle said...

Interesting point from Mr. Waterhouse about studies suggesting that wasp or bee venom may be the culprit of asthmatic reactions. I've observed several California harvests where the grapes are teeming with yellow jackets and bees as they are put through the crusher, adding a healthy dollop of MOG "material other than grapes" to the fresh juice. I'm not sure how much gets through the filtration process, but perhaps it's enough to cause a reaction in sensitive individuals.

Pam Strayer said...

I really appreciate the quotes from the U.C. Davis expert. Well said. I can't wait until organic wine means simply organic and not necessarily - as it does not - "sulfite free." It has been a huge boondoggle for the industry and means there are few incentives, other than personal ones, from the hundreds of growers and wineries that make organic wines. I have talked to at least 100 of them around the state of California and some in Oregon (I'm writing several books for consumers on organically grown wine) and can't believe how much effort and love people go through (extra spraying cycles, etc.) to be organic. Most say their motivation not to spray was due to living on the land themselves. You will notice that the vast majority of organic growers and vintners are family owned, not corporate.

John Cesano said...

I can honestly say that some of the least palatable wines I have tasted from North Coast wineries were labeled organic, while some of the best wines had the made from organically grown grapes label.

I understand that there are obstructionist wineries, some making terrible products, one comes to mind anyway, that oppose a relaxation of the rules regarding sulfites based on self interest and marketing reasons.

The vast majority of green wineries, and informed wine consumers, would favor the introduction of sulfites necessary to protect the quality of wine made from organically grown grapes, and allow that wine to be labelled organic.

JR Campbell said...

go rip the total so2 on some of these wines, particularly if they saw yeast strains like EC1118.....they can be high qithout kms additions....the usda is killing any innovation, really they have become large agri-business's best friend by forcing orwellian rulesa on us that only huge producers can afford to comply with....look at the meat industry

Anonymous said...

At the last NOSB meeting in Seattle, Handling Committee Chairperson Steve DeMuri stated that it was his intention to have a recommendation prepared for the Fall 2011 meeting in Savannah. I recommend that interesed parties email him directly or through the NOP website to make your feelings known. VIVA organic wine!!!

SoS said...

Wines without sufites -or low in sulfites- do not need to be instable at all. Try your hand at the wines by Marcel Lapierre, La Roche Buissiere, Jean Foillard and others, and you'll know it's perfectly possible to make wonderful, tasty, and stable wines without or very low in added sulfites.

W. Blake Gray said...

There's a HUGE difference between "low sulfite" and "no sulfite," especially in current US wine label law.

The first two add sulfites at bottling when necessary and their wines, despite their great intentions, would not qualify as USDA Organic.

Ann Rabin Anrold said...

Thanks for the Update Blake. I always love reading your posts.

The USDA is just prohibiting the growth of the Organic Wine category by not allowing ANY sulfites to be added. It is strange that wines made with organic grapes are put in the same category as a commercial wine, and being forced to put "sulfites added" on their label. This has a negative connotation, especially for those who do not understand that sulfites are not the cause of many allergies, and organic wineries are not adding the same levels as a typical commercial winery. Instead, there should be a cap on how many sulfites Organic Wines are allowed to include under the USDA certification, then those organic wineries that choose not to add any suflites could have the added benefit of putting "NO sulfites added" on their label. Win-Win for everyone and the Organic Wine movement can thrive and gain some momentum.

Anonymous said...

Steve DeMuri, an executive at Campbell Soup on the NOSB is the lead on this issue for the Handling Committee. Write letters or send emails to get your vewpoints heard!!!

Anonymous said...

Why drink a wine if it tastes like "junk?" I wouldn't spend $20-$40 on a bottle that I don't enjoy drinking. Sulfites NEED to be used in Organic wines if that segment of the market has any hope at all.

Anonymous said...

The NOSB meeting is coming up in Novemeber, and this subject will be discussed. Get your comments in to Steve DeMuri, Chairman of the NOSB to get your voice heard. Call or write Steve DeMuri today!!!!!

Anonymous said...

I wrote Steve DeMuri a month ago and didn't get a response

Anonymous said...

I wrote Steve DeMuri a month ago and didn't get a response

Anonymous said...

Do you have the contact info for Steve DeMuri?

Anonymous said...

Steve DeMuri email address is steve_demuri@campbellsoup.com. NOSB meeting happening NOW. Email him.

Anonymous said...

Well, the vote happened today. Steve DeMuri called for the question and the vote went down in flames! Viva truly organic wines! Victory to non-sulfited organic wines!!!! By the way, Mr. Steve DeMuri voted for the opposition.