Monday, October 24, 2011

Organic wine gets one step closer to allowing sulfites

Organic grape growers seeking a better chance to make the additional money their efforts deserve got one step closer last week. A petition to allow USDA Organic wine to include sulfites cleared the second -- and perhaps most significant -- of four procedural hurdles.

"We think this step was pretty crucial," said Steven Hoffman, managing director of Compass Natural in Boulder, Col. "But the next meeting will be crucial too, and the small group of no-sulfites-added constituents are going to be very vocal."

Your comments (due by Nov. 13) might help tip the balance. I'll tell you below how to participate.

A quick background on the issue, which I wrote about earlier this year for the Los Angeles Times. Currently "organic wine" cannot contain any added sulfites, though sulfites are a crucial element in winemaking. This has kept organic wine marginalized at a time when organic grocery sales continue to grow, and it has allowed all types of green claims -- some legitimate, some specious -- to proliferate to fill the need.

Wines with sulfites added -- organic or not -- must say this on the label; the petition would not change that. What the petition would do would shake "organic wine" from its association with poorly made no-sulfite wines that often spoiled before they reached the consumer. And that might mean that organic wine -- which currently costs less, on average, than similar non-organic wine despite the extra effort and expense in making it -- might finally earn a premium, which could encourage more growers to get certified.

I think it's a fair argument that adding sulfites is adulteration that is not allowed in other organic products. However, wine has different demands than other organic products, mainly because of a more complicated distribution system. You can't just put your wine on a truck, drive it to a farmers' market and sell it; you would be arrested. Wine sits in warehouses for months and sometimes isn't drunk for years after its bottling; organic apple juice doesn't have this problem.

The anti-sulfite argument that irritates me is the claim that some people are allergic to sulfites, so they shouldn't be allowed in organic wine. Without even getting into the issue that most people who think they're allergic to sulfites actually are not, it's just a smokescreen: organics have nothing to do with allergies. Should people with peanut allergies be allowed to outlaw organic peanuts?

I know from previous discussions of the issue that the more somebody knows about wine, the more sympathetic they are to the pro-sulfite argument. The anti-sulfite argument is a simple, easily understandable one: no preservatives. And the number of people who care about organic food but don't really know much about wine is pretty high, so this petition has been fighting an uphill battle.

Which brings me back to the news of last week. A subcommittee of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) voted 5-0 to recommend that the petition to allow 100 ppm of sulfites in organic wine be approved.

"I think it's favorable that it's a unanimous vote from the people considering this," Hoffman said.

This is important because the subcommittee members all sit on the NOSB, which meets Nov. 29-Dec. 2 in Savannah, Georgia, to consider a whole host of petitions regarding organics. This petition is just a minor one to the NOSB, but with huge implications for some grape growers and wineries.

If the petition passes the hurdle of the NOSB in December, it goes to the National Organic Program (NOP), run directly by the USDA; that would be the final hurdle. But the NOSB meeting is a big hurdle to clear first, and that's next month.

If you have an opinion, you should share it with the NOSB. I particularly encourage winemakers to submit comments based on your knowledge and experience.

The commenting system is a little complicated -- it's the federal government, what else would you expect? Here's how to do it. Remember, the deadline is Nov. 13.

To prepare, you can upload a file that contains your letterhead. Or you can submit a comment (up to 2,000 characters) directly.

1) Go to

2) On the homepage, you will see a search window that says "Enter Keyword or ID"

Enter AMS-NOP-11-0081

This will take you to a page that lists Meetings: National Organic Standards Board.  (I've tried to make a link but it might not work, hence the complete instructions.)

3) Under "Actions" click on "Submit a Comment."

4) Write a comment! Practice democracy! Then have a nice glass of wine made from organic grapes; sulfites optional.

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John M. Kelly said...

Comment posted:
"RE: sulfites added to wine, organic standards

The current regulation on the presence of sulfites in wine carrying the 'organic' designation is arbitrary, and excludes wines from carrying the 'organic' designation that are otherwise produced from organically-grown grapes and by following best sustainable winery practice, including avoiding all other additives.

Sulfite levels in excess of the current arbitrary limit may exist in a wine due to the presence of elemental sulfur on grapes carrying organic certification. Yeast fermentation may also produce sulfite in excess of the current arbitrary standard.

Judicious use of sulfur dioxide or potassium metabisulfite (both inorganic materials) in the early stages of wine production prevents bacterial spoilage, yielding wines that have fewer organoleptic defects and fewer undesirable toxic by-products generated by spoilage organisms.

The prohibition on the use of sulfites in the production of 'organic' wines should be rescinded."

BTW, Blake - good on you for securing ads to help monetize your blog, but the Land Rover thing in the upper corner can't be closed and blocks the first couple lines of your post.

W. Blake Gray said...

John: I'm not seeing this ad. Can you email me? I want to tell your experience to my ad server.

Anonymous said...

I don't see that either, better make sure the checks in the mail from LR. What software are you using John?

1WineDude said...

Next up, FD&C Yellow #6! :)

W. Blake Gray said...

Joe: I know you're kidding, but I wonder something: If Mega Purple was made organically, which it probably could be as it's a grape extract, would that be a legal additive to organic wine?

I don't know the answer. Does anyone?

Unknown said...

Blake - Thanks very much for alerting to this opportunity. We will comment.
Your article didn't get into the points
* There have been a modest number of about 15 "organic wine" producers which really haven't grown in two decades. They are holding the hundreds of wineries now using organic grapes hostage.
* Meanwhile in the EU one label "organic wine" (with added sulfites) can be exported to all 29 countries with no label changes. Our labels are not acceptable there, so logistically we're shut out as the cost of having multiple labels and applying them when needed is prohibitive. So their organic market is booming. The US market is not...

* Wines made with no sulfites have little to no chance of becoming a world-class wine. A 4 to 5 year old barrel-aged wine made from grapes originating in Bordeaux holding up without the minimum of sulfites required for its pH ?