Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Final ruling: "Organic wine" cannot have added sulfites

The small community that makes USDA-labeled "organic wine" won a crucial, final victory last week to protect its market share.

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.

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Anonymous said...

Hay Gray,

I noticed on Frey's capsule it states, No GMO Yeast. As far as I know, there is not a single GMO wine yeast on the market.Pretty silly and misleading to me.

Robert C. said...

Hey Anon,
If it has been selected for a particular trait, such as low SO2 production or more glycerol production, it had been genetically modified, just not at the molecular level. Kinda like breeds of dogs.

Greg said...

Robert C. - If "being selected for a particular trait" is your bar for genetic modification, almost all commercial yeasts would be labeled GMO. That is certainly not what GMO means in common usage. For that matter, most grape vine varieties are also "GMOs" since they were bred for particular traits during variety development.

Pam Strayer said...

I think it's time to get the NOSB off the case. They are dominated by former organic NSA winemakers who used to be on this and other boards (LaRocca and Frey have formerly been making these decisions and guiding their peers). The Wine Institute needs to step up to the plate, and take the bull by the hands, and get new legislation passed. Organic food experts just don't know enough about wine to regulate it.

Nicolas said...

You can still use "made from organic grapes" - same standards than organic wines but OK to add sulfites up to 100ppm total - works for us.

Nicolas @ Pacific Rim

Pam Strayer said...

I don't think you have to make bad wine choices! Organically grown wine is all around us - from big boxed wines up to 100 points Parker wines - at all price points and quality levels.

I have identified more than 150+ wineries that have organically grown wine in the U.S.

Just go to and click on the The Map to go to the Google Maps list.

I am also writing an app about the organically grown wines in U.S. that are $20 or less. Which should be out soon. From Sutromedia and Organic Wine Uncorked.

Thanks for covering this very important story.

Tom said...

You're absolutely right, it is too difficult to keep making the distinction between organic wine and wine made with organically-grown grapes. Biodynamic wine could be the answer, except that Demeter USA has a certification mark on the word biodynamic and you have to pay them off if the wine is made outside the U.S., even if it's certified by part of the worldwide Demeter organization.

Jeff Swanson said...

Thoughtful commentary. As a sustainable Oregon winery nearing "LIVE" certification I had to chuckle at your "greenwashing" commentary. We want to keep our vines healthy and make good wine that will taste as good from the bottle as it does at the winery.

Cheers and happy holidays!
Jeff Swanson
Olsen Family Vineyards

W. Blake Gray said...

Robert C: I'm sorry, but that's a silly definition of GMO. Under that definition, we have all been genetically modiifed, because maybe our mothers and grandmothers selected their partners for their physical strength and/or earning capacity.

Sondra said...

Thanks for this clarification and how political 'sulfites' are. I have never found a drinkable 'organic wine' but lots of those that are biodynamic or made with organically grown grapes are fantastic. Didn't know that BD wines could have some added sulfites.

Jon Bjork said...

Sad. Period.

Robert C said...

Greg, Blake,

Ouch. Sorry to get off the subject, but GMO's have their DNA tailored for a specific trait/product on that level. The locus or or set of information is then made to be transcribed at a higher rate to produce more of that trait/product. I used dogs as an example because they have been selectivly bred for a particular trait such as largness for Great Danes, smallness for Chihuahuas. Same DNA of course but completely different results and far from the original strand of DNA from which they came.
Yeast are the same thing. They might not be under the same umbrella as a GMO product but they have been genetically modified through breeding. The DNA has been changed, through the long way.
By the way my mother did not select her mate to produce a an offspring with a specific trait. I was an oops, a result of a bender in San Diego, thank you very much.

Anonymous said...

Robert C.

Sorry man, but most most wine yeast are isolated. Not even Breed.

Viognier Nevaeh aka Tarara Viggy said...

Robert C.

As the Anon below you stated, they are not GMO, they are Isolated. There are a handful of strains that are coming on the market now that are blending Saccharomyces Cerevisiae with other families for "added complexity" but these are not the norm. Most commercial yeasts on the market are isolated from specific fermentations that have re-occuring characteristics. Not GMO at all.

There are several wineries that do not use these either (at least not purposely) and opt for indigenous yeast but that is a completely different conversation then GMO.

Something that drives me a little crazy about the idea of organic wines is that they make it difficult (I don't think it is impossible) to make great wine. That said I have Organic Milk in my fridge (you mentioned milk earlier and i found it funny) that has an expiration date of January 26th and I have already had it a week?!?!?!?

Organic does not equal quality or earth friendly. You are still allowed to spray Sulfur and Copper in the vineyard. How is that great for anyone or anything?

It can be a start, but organic on it's own is meaningless for oenology and viticulture.

Fabio (Vinos Ambiz) said...

Very interesting post. There's lots of politicking involved (too much imho) in defining what's organic and what's not. But I was surprised to read that you think that "sulfites are crucial for the production of quality wine"! The fact is that many wineries have been making quality sulfite-free wines for years. Without adding sulfites that is, as a small quantity is always produced naturally during fermentation). maybe you meant to say production in industrial quantities, as opposed to small family or artesan type wineries, in which case I don't know. All the sulfite-free quality producers I know or have heard about tend to be small. Or maybe you just need to taste more organic wines! there are many out there and only a few are bad - just like there are a few (in percentage terms) bad non-organic wines! The same applies to 'biodynamic' or 'natural' or 'sustainable', ie just because there's a word attached to the wine doesn't guarantee that it'll be good!

W. Blake Gray said...

Fabio: I'm sorry, it's simply not true that many wineries have been making good wines without sulfites. I have had a few interesting wines made without sulfites, notably a couple from La Rocca, which opposed this petition. But they are the exceptions.

Don't insult me by saying I meant large industrial "organic wines." That category does not exist.

jon frey said...

Hey Blake Gray – Whoa! You weren’t there, so how about “the rest of the story” on the NOSB decision in Savannah? This decision was not just about wine, but also about the integrity of the organic seal. The board was very concerned about allowing a preservative in foods that bear the USDA organic seal, undermining market precedence and consumer trust in the seal. Consumers have come to understand the seal stands for food purity and no preservatives, and since sulfites have always been banned under the USDA organic program, the board was very reluctant to jeopardize that trust by allowing a preservative in any organic product. There was also the “slippery slope” argument, i.e. What’s next? Salad dressings and pasta sauce using sulfited wine as an ingredient? The salad dressing could then no longer be a USDA organic product, since it would contain preservatives, etc…

Your innuendo that we bribed Jay Feldman is a low blow and has no truth. We’ve given annual donations to his Beyond Pesticides organization, for 20 years, way before the NOSB was even created. We also give to many other similar organizations promoting agricultural and healthcare innovation and environmental health. Feldman is regarded as the “conscience of the board” and asks more questions on every board topic than any other member, and he’s worried about the trend of the organic standards being watered down and losing consumer trust. You didn’t mention the USDA lawyers decided that Frey’s ongoing contributions are not a conflict of interest.

Beyond Pesticides does great work, you should check it out. Interesting to visit their home page where you’ll find our logo along with Whole Foods and Organic Valley. Oh, by the way, Whole Foods employee Joe Dickson and Organic Valley employee Wendy Fulwider both sit on the NOSB board and voted to pass the sulfite petition. How can you have it both ways? Seems like you’ve wandered into a “Gray” area of truth here.

You may think our wine sucks, but it doesn’t really. Talking to you at Natural Products Expo last March I understood you liked some of the La Rocca NSA wines, not mentioned in your post. You were introduced as “our journalist” at the press conference thrown by the petitioners. Talk about “lawyering up”, the petitioners hired a DC attorney and a consulting firm to carry the ball for them, who engaged in heavy lobbying to the board members, industry and certification groups. I talked to you after the press conference and explained why I didn’t think the petition would fly, due to the larger implications of allowing a preservative like sulfites in products bearing the seal; and that’s what happened.

jon frey said...

Hey Blake Whoa! part 2
More background on the NOSB decision FYI (don’t mean to go on too much, but would like cover all your points.) The NOSB Handling Committee’s recommendation to approve the petition, and the petitioner’s attorney’s arguments, relied on a “Technical Evaluation Report” prepared by a DC research firm. This “TER” was very incomplete and read like a “sulfites 101” primer for conventional winemaking, making no mention of alternative winemaking methods, or even the existence of the worldwide, rapidly growing, consumer-driven NSA market of nearly 10 million bottles/year. The presentations by winemakers, winemaking consultants, sommeliers, distributors, shop owners, consumers and consumer groups caused the board to reconsider and overrule the handling committee recommendation, putting the lie to the usual myths parroted by the petitioners attorney, such as:
- Sulfite added to wine since antiquity (no evidence.)
- Sulfites are some kind of “magic bullet”, and NSA wines are very perishable, must be refrigerated, don’t last more than a year etc. (sulfites really more a “two-edged sword” and can cause wine problems, while many awards in blind competitions to NSAs produced using modern equipment and techniques and the thriving NSA market belie this claim.)
- Naturally occurring sulfites are in all wines (most NSAs, especially reds, test out at “no detectable sulfites”, and detectable naturally-occurring sulfites in wines and other foods are mostly in “bound” form, not the “free” form of use to winemakers.)
- Growth of organic wine industry and vineyard certification held back by NSA’s (in reality both NSA’s and Made With categories are increasing worldwide, as well as vineyard certification, so not to worry, Blake.)
- Another myth: Consumer confusion would be lessened by allowing sulfites on a label with the seal (think how much more confusing for the consumer looking for purity if the USDA seal is on a product containing a preservative? In a market where the average consumer trusts the meaningless “natural” designation more than “organic?) I think it’s time for a “sigh”.

Last but not least, try googling “gmo wine yeast” for an eyeful. These yeasts were quietly used in CA by some wineries for at least two years before quietly being dropped, were being pushed by a South African scientist with a financial interest. The yeast would also do a malo-lactic fermentation, never before seen in yeast in this planet’s ecosystem, and of course could spread like the wind. Like other GMOs (not to be confused with traditional breeding, “marker-assisted” breeding, or even so-called “classical mutagenesis”) they are produced by crude and haphazard techniques, causing unintended damage to the organism.

Anonymous said...

There is at least one non-GMO yeast that reduces malic acid (malolactic fermentation), 71B-1122 by Lalvin. There are a couple of GMO yeasts that are being introduced that also reduce malic acid. For those who hate GMO's beware. More will probably show up eventually. Please explain the problem.

Why are organic producers morally superior? And why are biodynamic producers even more superior morally? If a rational argument could be presented I'd listen carefully. I find the whole argument for these positions tiresome as they seem to be about "me" and my "personal preferences" but rarely about real risks to real people or the environment. Can we have some due diligence here?

W. Blake Gray said...

Shoegrape: For reasons such as this decision, true sustainable production is usually superior to organic. The problem is certification and accountability. Anybody can call anything "sustainable," whereas the positive side of this decision shows that with certified organic, greenwashing is difficult if not impossible.

Jon Frey: Usually the victors get to write the history. Here you have to do it in comments.
There are always two sides to any dispute and as I have written before, people on either side of this one agree about 90 percent politically on everything else.
Re your wines: Seek out a different unbiased taster and get somebody else's feedback. I don't want to debate this here on my site, but my opinion was not politically motivated.

Jordan Harris: One of the flaws of nationwide standards for organic production is that they apply everywhere. We talked in Virginia about the difficulties you face with humidity and mildew, and it seems that organic standards that work in California are impractical there. "Sustainable" is a better goal for the mid-Atlantic region, and that's fine.
This is the same as French "dry farmers" who get drizzled on every week pointing a finger at Californians who go without rain all summer and saying "irrigation is bad."
Making good, responsible wines under local conditions is the most important thing. Especially now that I'll be running around telling people not to buy "organic wine." :)

Anonymous said...

Jon Frey: "You may think our wine sucks, but it doesn’t really."

This is not exactly a spirited defense of your wine's quality! It's as if you acknowledge that they kind of suck, which in turn is an acknowledgement of what just about everyone in the wine business thinks of your wines.

W. Blake Gray said...

Just a brief note that while I do still allow anonymous comments, I don't allow them to include racism, profanity, commercial advertising or other offensive content. Nor do I allow anonymous spamming of multiple comments.

If you want to disagree with me, put your name on it. You can see my name and face on this blog. No lobbing long-winded insults from the bunker of anonymity.

Katherine Cole said...

This is so disappointing. Shouldn't the goal of organic agriculture be to make the world at large a safer and healthier place? Organic farming should not be an exclusive club for the very few; it should be an inclusive umbrella for the many vinetenders who practice sound, sustainable farming.

jamie goode said...

Lalvin 71B-1122 isn't GM

ML01 is the GM yeast that does malolactic at the same time as alcoholic fermentation

jamie goode said...

Should point out that this is a US-only debate - here organic wine is the term used to describe wine made from organically grown grapes. I agree with Blake, katherine and others - it's nuts to have a separate definition for organic wine and wine made from organically grown grapes - utterly nuts - it's confining organics to a tiny niche and is likely to confuse consumers.

Fabio (Vinos Ambiz) said...

I didn't intend any insult! I'm still puzzled as to why you thought I was insulting you! I sincerely believe it's possible to make quality wines without adding sulfites. Maybe it's a question of numbers and I should have said "some" instead of "many"!
Maybe there are more quality sulfite-free wines here in Europe, because in my experience the exceptions are the other way around. Maybe the wine-making culture and techniques in Europe and US are more different than I thought!! Here the category of large industrial organic wines certainly does exist!

W. Blake Gray said...

OK Fabio, apology accepted. I'd be very interested in trying the sulfite-free European wines you recommend.

Something you need to know about the US is that the distribution system here is complicated and run by individual states rather than the national government. This slows down the wine getting to the stores, which I think is a big issue for no-sulfite wines.

Since your first statement, I got to thinking about the concept of large industrial producers of organic wine. And I thought, you know what? That would be a good thing. Large industrial producers of wine aren't going away; if they decided to practice organic viticulture, that would be better.

One of the funniest interviews I ever did was with a woman who told me she's allergic to sulfites, they give her pains all over her body and she could only drink Bonterra, a large US wine brand made from organic grapes. Every Bonterra wine contains sulfites. Doesn't make it a bad brand though -- it was recently sold, so we'll see, but under the previous owners, it was pretty good for the industry and the Earth.

Fabio (Vinos Ambiz) said...

If you're in NY, try Chambers St.Wines, they have a large selection. I think they carry no-sulfite wines from Laureano Serres, and Alfredo Maestro for example from Spain, and there are many more producers of no sulfite added wines from France and Italy. Puzelat and Occhipinti for example.
Industrial-organic. Yes, if the large wineries all went organic it would be great for the environment. And possibly even for the quality of the wine!!! Albet i Noia is the largest organic winery in Spain, I believe. I think that the long-term trend (in Europe anyway) is in fact going that way. Several Spanish large co-op wineries, that 'historically' just used to produce table wine, have started to convert to organic. Slowly but surely! Also, regular wineries are starting to convert too, at least partially. Bodegas Torres, for example, is partly organic. You can see the official figures and graphs in the EU Dept of Agriculture, which shows the amount of land under organic cultivation increasing every year.
I know about the 3-tier system. I don't think it's that big an issue for no-sulfite wines; it's just the transport and storage that has to be correct. Also, it's a bit of a myth that no-sulfite wines go off or spoil in a short time. I suppose some do, but in general, such wines are not as delicate as is generally assumed. You could consult the following US importers: Jose Pastor Selections, Jenny & Francois, Louis Dressner for example who all specialize in organic wines and have some no-sulfite ones too.

W. Blake Gray said...

Fabio: One thing I've learned about European organic wines is that sometimes their sulfite levels are higher than the wineries report, because there's no legal reason for them not to be.

I don't see anything nefarious in this. But it does make an unfair playing field for US wines made from organic grapes, which must put "contains sulfites" on the label.

Fabio (Vinos Ambiz) said...

Yes, European organic wine can contain sulfites (100 mg for red
and 150 for white if I'm not mistaken), but I don't think there's any requirement to mention the level of sulfites on the label here. Only if it's for export to the USA and if it's over 10 mg/l
(basically all wines, whether the winemaker adds it or not!), then
the label has to include 'Contains Sulfites'. It's a huge mess really.
I'm sure that there are some unscrupulous winemakers out there
(even organic ones!) who lie about the levels. I hope they're a
minority. At the other extreme, Laureano Serres above, for example, actually publishes his laboratory analyses on his webpage for each wine! P.S. I didn't intend to paint myself into a
no-sulfite corner! Generally and by default I don't add sulfites,
but if I have to for whatever reason, I do. It's not an ideology or a dogma for me. The whole issue is overblown as the damn substance is not even toxic. I have nothing against a few mils at
bottling or whenever really necessary.