This sounds familiar: a national consumer group is fighting to maintain organic standards against industry people who want to weaken them. But when it comes to "organic wine," the well-meaning consumers may actually be discouraging more organic farming.
That's because of a quirk in the labeling laws. Currently for a wine to be labeled " USDA Organic" — a coveted seal of approval for most foods — it must have no added sulfites. However, most winemakers feel that sulfites are crucial in winemaking — they discourage spoilage and preserve fresh fruit flavors. Unlike most organic products, wine may sit for years before being opened. Furthermore, most wines contain some level of sulfites anyway since they are a naturally occurring byproduct of fermentation.
As a result, even though organic food is one of the fastest-growing categories in the supermarket, "organic wine" is an afterthought. No large producers make it. Other types of eco-friendly wine have stepped in to fill the breach, including biodynamic, sustainable and "natural wine," which may have weak or even no official standards. Wine drinkers looking for a healthful, green product face confusing choices, and wineries can claim they're eco-friendly without anyone really checking.
Because of that, some leading environmentalists in the wine industry — including Paul Dolan of Mendocino Wine Co., a pioneer in organic grape farming — are asking the government to allow sulfites to be added to wines labeled organic. Dolan thinks that change would encourage more grape growers to be certified organic, meaning the use of fewer herbicides and pesticides in vineyards.
"If you want to make a difference in the organic growing of wine grapes, you need to allow sulfites," said Dolan, one of the filers of a petition under consideration now.
But that petition has roused the Minnesota-based Organic Consumers Assn., which has persuaded thousands of supporters to write letters to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program opposing it.
Why sulfites are used
The battle dates to the 1990s. That's when the Organic Foods Production Act required the USDA to develop organic standards for most foodstuffs. In most cases, preservatives such as nitrates and sulfites were disallowed. But because sulfites naturally occur in wine, wine got a pass for up to 10 parts per million. In nonorganic wine, up to 350 ppm are allowed.
At the time, most of the wine industry ignored the issue because organic wine had a bad reputation. Wine without sulfites is prone to bacterial infections that can make it smell or taste terrible.
Even with perfect hygiene in the winery, wine without sulfites is likely to oxidize quickly, robbing it of fresh fruit flavors.
"Sulfites preserve wine in four completely different ways," said Andy Waterhouse, chairman of the UC Davis department of viticulture and enology. "It's a big challenge to find something that can replace even one of those things. It's extremely difficult to make high-quality wine without adding sulfites. The smallest amount of mold on the grapes would cause the flavor to be different."
As a result of the current standards, most winemakers settle for a less green-sounding official category: "Made from organically grown grapes."
"How many people pick up a bottle that says 'made from organic grapes' and think, 'This isn't what I was looking for?'" said Christian Miller, proprietor of wine-market research firm Full Glass Research.
Some of the opposition to sulfites seems to be based on misinformation. One of the Organic Consumers Assn.'s major arguments against adding sulfites is that they are allergens. Technically, that is true, but research has shown that most people who think they are allergic to sulfites are actually reacting to something else.
For example, Norma Long-Smith, a healthcare professional in Oakland who had written letters in support of limiting sulfites, said, "I experience body aches when I drink wines with sulfites in them. The organic wines, I can drink them and they don't have the same effect on my body."
But when asked for an example of a wine she could drink without pain, she named Bonterra, the largest national brand made from organically grown grapes.
The thing is, Bonterra adds sulfites to all of its wines, according to winemaker Bob Blue. "Wine wants to turn into vinegar, and it wants to oxidize," Blue said. "We're drinking it midcourse. We don't go out and drink 3-year-old apple juice."
Furthermore, the National Organic Program doesn't include potential allergic reactions in its considerations — there are plenty of foods (such as peanuts) that are allergenic but get organic certification.
Two producers who make organic wine as currently defined are 5,000-case Coturri Winery and 80,000-case Frey Vineyards. The marketing approaches of the two California wineries couldn't be more different.
Tony Coturri said his winery has never used sulfites in its 31-year history, but he still does not put "organic wine" on the label.
"It confuses the public," Coturri said. "Plus, a lot of wineries would piggyback on me. If a consumer has a bad wine and it's an organic wine, they could turn on the whole category."
On the other hand, Frey Vineyards aggressively markets its "USDA organic wine" and is trying to lead the fight against sulfites. On its website, it proclaims, "Long-established USDA organic wine standards are under attack," and links to a form letter people can send to the administrator of the USDA's National Organic Program.
"Most of the 8,000-year history of winemaking appears to be from naturally farmed, organically grown grapes without sulfites added," winemaker Paul Frey said.
Of course, for most of wine's history, it was made to be consumed within a few miles of where it was produced. That's no longer the case.
"If you were going to come to the winery and ask me to fill a jug for you, I would do it without sulfites," Siduri owner/winemaker Adam Lee said. "But if you're shipping across the country, you need them. They're vitally important."