Wednesday, December 7, 2011
Final ruling: "Organic wine" cannot have added sulfites
The National Organic Standards Board voted 9-5 to continue to prohibit sulfites from being added to "organic wine." This came after the NOSB handling committee, which better understood the issue, voted 5-0 in October to support the inclusion of sulfites in organic wine.
Among the losing side, there was talk of at least one key voter being motivated by conflict of interest. It may be true, but it has also been my experience that simple ignorance of the wine industry will turn most lovers of organic foods into anti-sulfite people. And besides, the petitioners needed 10 votes -- a 2/3 majority -- to win, so it wasn't close.
One committee member, Jay Feldman, heads an organization called Beyond Pesticides that received a contribution of at least $4,000 from Frey Vineyards, which makes USDA organic wine. Feldman was by far the most vocal opponent of the petition to allow sulfites, interrogating the handling committee head, John Foster of Earthbound Farm, who supported it. At one point Feldman was admonished by National Organic Program head Miles McAvoy for "misrepresenting" the Organic Foods Production Act.
Now, that might be politically shady, as Frey Vineyards is celebrating the loudest today. The winery doesn't make particularly good wine -- I tasted through its lineup earlier this year and found most of the wines unpalatable, to be kind -- but it has a captive market of people who buy organics. And I'm the suspicious type.
Despite that, though, I'm going to give Feldman the benefit of the doubt; he's probably just an anti-additive fanatic who doesn't really understand wine. When I did a story for the LA Times on this issue, I interviewed a number of people like that. It's hard for me to disparage them, because they think they're doing the right thing for the Earth and for consumers, and if we weren't talking about a relatively fragile product that might sit in unchilled warehouses for months or even years, they probably would be. I want these people fighting to keep preservatives out of my organic milk and juice. I just wish they understood that wine is different.
I'm also not going to go into detail here about why sulfites are crucial for the production of quality wine. I've done it before, but there's no point now, because there's nobody I need to convince. The USDA cannot overrule the NOSB. It's over: "organic wine" will remain volatile, prone to oxidation and bacterial contamination for the forseeable future.
With the hope gone that "organic wine" could become a viable category for people like me who care about the Earth and also want to drink good wine, I'll return to what knowledgeable wine and Earth lovers have been doing already:
We must tell people not to buy "organic wine," because it's an inferior product.
We have to keep telling people, What you want is "wine made from organic grapes," but not "organic wine." It's complicated, and people won't remember.
So it's easier to remember this: "biodynamic wine" is now the gold standard for certifiable Earth-friendly wines. I know, biodynamics is voodoo, but it's verified by stringent standards, and the wines can contain sulfites, so they can be drinkable.
About "sustainable wine" ... sigh. Heavy sigh. Resigned slump of the shoulders. All right, I'll say it: sustainable wines, even though that term is often meaningless marketing, are far more likely to be good wines than "organic wine." It's impossible to know if they're good for the Earth without carefully researching the individual winery making the claim. But I'll buy a "sustainable wine" over an "organic wine" any day.
The other winners last week were the nebulous greenwashers in the wine world; people who make unverifiable claims of Earth friendliness (like "sustainable.")
Let me tell you an embarrassing personal story. When I lived in Japan, I made good money as an ad copywriter. One day I got an assignment to write an environmental brochure for a car company. I asked what they were doing to help the environment. I was told, "Just make it up." So I did. That's a bit of a simplification; I scoured technical brochures for tiny points I could make into big bold headlines, like "aerodynamic design reduces CO2 emissions!" But if there was any environmental reasoning behind any of this company's products, I didn't know of it.
That's how greenwashing works, and it's the main reason I'm so adamant about wanting official certification for green products. Without it, it's all just happy talk.
I feel this loss at the NOSB keenly. I wanted to see a burgeoning "organic wine" category, because I wanted to drink them. Now I'll just have to continue making the same unfair choice American wine consumers have had all along: Do I care about the Earth, or do I care about wine that's drinkable? I'm going to choose me, but not without sadness for the Earth.