Labeling Laws

It may surprise many people, but the labeling laws for the wine industry are tricky and can truthfully be quite confusing for a consumer.  Actually, the more you know the more confusing it can get.  Hopefully some day this will change and a consumer will be able to recognize clearly whether a wine is made from grapes that are farmed organically or biodynamically and/or using these same restrictions in the winery as well.

First we have to distinguish that there are two processes to making a bottle of wine.  There is the grape growing and then there is the winemaking.  For people not involved with the wine industry this may be new information, but to organizations like the USDA it is important to separate them, as this will determine whether a winey will get the USDA organic symbol on their wine bottle.

Organic in the Vineyard
There are many organizations that will certify organic vineyards, but only one American organization that will certify the winery.  Thus, you will often find labels that mention “Made with Organic Grapes”.  They are not trying to get away with anything or fool you.  In fact, they have to be certified in the vineyard to even be allowed by the TTB (Alcohol, Tabacco Tax and Trade Bureau) to put this onto their label, and they must not go over the allowable 100ppm added sulfites.  As of right now, this alternative labeling is for those who practice organic methods in their vineyard (ie. no pesticide, herbicides, fungicides or synthetic chemicals).  To many people this standard is satisfactory, as they are fully aware that sulfites are a necessary preservative and are common in other products they consume such as dried fruit, jams, syrups, and cheese.

Organic in the Winery
To be organic in the winery means that the sulfites do not measure up to more than 10ppm (parts per million).  Considering sulfites are a natural derivative of wine, this often means that wineries that choose this direction are not adding any sulfites at all, or else they would be going over the 10ppm limit.  On the other side, there are organic vineyards that choose to produce organic grapes, but typically do not add much more than 50ppm to their wines.  This may sound like a lot, but if you compare it to most commercial wineries which are known to add up to 300ppm+ sulfites, it is actually quite minimal.  Additionally, wine companies that take time to produce an organic grape are typically not contributing a number of other additives into their wine.  If they were, they certainly would not be considered organic.

European Organic Standards
And to add to this confusion, European organic winemakers are allowed to put up to 100ppm sulfites and they are still eligible for the European organic stamp of approval called Agricultura Biologica.  Currently we are are now at a stand still int he American market, as there are two different organizations fighting for the rights of organic wine.  One that believes that the organic standard for organic wines should remain in place and the other that feels the organic wine market will open up if the USDA alters the allowable sulfite level to equal that of european standards.  This will not only make it easier for consumers to find organic wines, it will allow european wines that are coming into the U.S. to keep their organic certification in place.

Nutrition Facts
Sulfites  seem to be the one active ingredient that many people are concerned about, but in actuality there are many more things on the ‘allowable’ commercial wine ingredient list that are far worse, and not allowed or even wanted in organic wines.  Interestingly, commercial wineries are not obligated to list these additives in a “Nutrition Facts” section of their label as their food counterparts are required to.  This is a double edge sword.  Wine is considered a food when it comes to additional sulfite standards, but for some reason it is allowed a ‘pass’ when it comes to the “List of Ingredients” part of the label.  Yes, this can get very confusing if you think about it, considering most conscience shoppers these days are trained to read packages.

Sustainable Wines
If your head is not already spinning by now, then you may be able to digest the discussion of sustainable wines.  Take note that wineries that is participating is sustainability are not necessarily organic.  They may be doing incredible things for the environment, animals and people, but they may not be producing organic grapes.  This has been a category that is growing in numbers and also contreversy as it has added another level to the already confused public, not to mention the fact that some wineries are using it as a marketing ploy to attract organic consumers.

If wine is labeled as “Organic Wine”:
1. Grapes have been grown in accordance with the organic standards established by the USDA National Organic Program (NOP).
2. Wine has been produced and bottled in a certified organic facility.
3. Wine contains no added sulfites.
4. These wines MAY display the USDA ORGANIC logo and/or the certifier’s logo.

If wine is labeled “Made with Organic Grapes”:
1. Grapes have been grown in accordance with the organic standards established by the USDA National Organic Program (NOP).
2. Wine contains all organic grapes.*
3. Wine has been produced and bottled in a certified organic facility.
4. May contain added sulfites up to 100ppm.
5. These wines DO NOT display the USDA ORGANIC logo but MAY display the certifier’s logo like CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers)
*Products which contain organic and non-organic grapes must indicate the presence of non-organic grapes in the “Made with Organic…” statement on the label.

If wine is labeled with an Organic Ingredient statement only:
1. Wine contains at least some certified organic grapes.
2. The wine is not required to be made at a certified winery or be certified.
3. These wines DO NOT display the USDA ORGANIC logo nor the certifier’s logo.

*image provided by California Certified Organic Farmers

There are so many ways to describe what is in the product you are consuming.  It will still be some time before you can walk into a store and find a universal labeling system across all organic wine products.  Unfortunately, this is hurting the growth of the organic wine category, that is still recovering from a back lash of opinions that started years ago.  At the end of the day, it is the consumer that misses out on some fabulous wines and the wineries that are missing out on sales.  Until then, we must support the organic wine movement by doing our detective work, knowing our options and reading between the lines.