Like choosing between an organic apple or a conventionally grown one, the same decision can be made with wine.
Familiar with the wine industry, Annie Arnold created a business dedicated to informing consumers about organic wine and connecting them to the suppliers and farmers.
“Beverages are off the radar when it comes to organics,” said Arnold, owner of Organic Wine Exchange.
Just like the information that is helping fuel the food revolution, Arnold is hoping efforts to help educate consumers will help stimulate the organics conversation in the wine industry. For Arnold, it’s about choice.
“The beverage industry is definitely forgotten,” said Arnold. “People aren’t concentrating on it.”
Arnold took her family’s wine and liquor store online in 2010, and opted to focus on organic wines to differentiate herself from competition. In creating this niche, most of the wineries that Arnold wanted to represent had a natural element to them, with many of them pursuing more sustainable and organic practices.
“After being in the wine industry for years, I knew very little about organics,” said Arnold. “I didn’t even know about organics in wine.”
There were blogs and a few reference sites on organic wines, but no one place that sold them via the Internet. Several local markets, including Clark’s in Rancho Mirage, have a variety of organic and made-with-organic-grape wines. Clark’s has nearly 50 varieties, said assistant store manager, Rami Shahin.
“If you’re going to have an organic diet, you might as well keep everything organic,” said Shahin.
Organic Wine Exchange is able to offer hundreds of wines to consumers and give them the resources they want to learn more about the organic wine industry.
Wine is on a fine line between food and beverage, explained Arnold, and falls under the jurisdiction of the Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, not the FDA. Because of this, listing every single ingredient is not required by law. It can be tricky to label wines in general, because many of the ingredients that are put in do not come out in the end.
To be considered a fully organic wine, the grapes must be organic in both the vineyard and the winery, meaning no pesticides are used on the vines and no sulfites are used during winemaking. Wineries at this level can be certified organic by the USDA and are only allowed 10 parts-per-million of naturally occurring sulfites.
“Sulfites are a natural byproduct of fermentation,” said Andew Kleiner, owner and winemaker at Lumière Winery in Temecula. “Even an organic wine would have sulfites, but they’re not added.”
Winemakers can also opt to make wines with organic grapes and can add up to 100 ppm of sulfites to the wine, said Arnold.
“In a lot of made-with-organic-grape categories, they are so attentive to their grapes in the vineyard they have little to no reason to add a ton of additives or sulfer in the winemaking process,” Arnold said. “They just add what’s needed.”
Biodynamic wines “are a little bit more organic than organic,” said Arnold. In this process, the farm is treated as one living organism and the farmers are conscious of all preparations. Some farmers create their own compost or let the lunar cycle guide when vines are planted or harvested.
“They follow a very natural rhythm of the earth’s cycle,” said Arnold.
“Contains sulfites” is a phrase found on so many bottles of wine, but so often the term is misunderstood. “Sulfites” is a catch-all term for sulfer dioxide, and the compounds are often used as a preservative in winemaking because of their antioxidant and antibacterial properties.
The maximum permitted levels of sulfites change depending on the style of wine.
A wine without added sulfites does not have as long of a shelf life and isn’t considered as stable as its conventionally processed counterparts. The addition of sulfites, said Kleiner, is dependent on the pH balance of the wine. The pH balance readily changes and the higher the levels, the more sulfites are needed.
Kleiner elects not to spray his fields with chemicals and noted that some vineyards do use a sulfer-based spray as a pesticide and to help combat mildew.
In the winery, Kleiner is a firm believer in using sulfites to help stabilize the wine and prolong the shelf life. But too many additional sulfites can transform the taste, Kleiner said.
Grapes naturally change flavor each vintage. Factors like rainfall or where the wine is produced can alter the taste of a grape varietal. Organic winemakers allow their wine to show these unique profiles by omitting the additives used by commercial producers and to help ensure that their wine reflects the best and most natural qualities from the vineyard.
Deane Foote’s winery, Foot Path Winery, blossomed out of his interest for red wine. Nestled in Temecula’s wine country, Foote’s organic grape vines share the land with his organic citrus orchard and other plants. Growing organic grapes, he said, was driven by his citrus.
“The only way for the farm to make money was to be certified organic,” said Foote. The original property did not have vines, so when they were planted, it was easier to have the entire farm be organic. Foote prefers beneficial bugs to using pesticides.
Foot Path wines are not organic, but they are made with organic grapes. The farm was certified organic in 2002, three years after he bought the property. Foote chooses to use one sulfite to help preserve his wines. He grows Cabernet, Merlot, sirah, Cabernet franc, malbec, petit bordeaux and zinfandel grapes.
“My winemaking style is probably different from everyone else’s in that I don’t like to play with the wine,” said Foote. “I don’t add a bunch of junk to it.”
Original Printed Article in the Desert Sun Newspaper (Food and Drink Section)- Feb. 19, 2014
Written by Beth Roessner