The Organic Wine Confusion

closeup of bunch of black juicy grapes with drop of water over whiteWhen the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) created the National Organic Program (NOP), they defined organic wine “a wine made from organically grown grapes without any added sulfites”. Because of this unfortunate restriction, the vast majority of what most people considered organic wines must be referred to as “wines made from organic grapes” (or organically grown grapes), since they are allowed to contain up to 100 ppm (parts per million) of added sulfites.

There are very few wines made without added sulfites because they are very unstable in quality.  (Vintners use sulfites because it gives them much more control of the quality of the product.  Without sulfites, a lot of product would be inferior or even ruined because of the difficulty this would present in controlling the complex chemistry of winemaking.)  Unfortunately this gives the public a negative perception of Organic Wines (or, if you prefer, wines made from organic grapes) in general.  It’s wonderful that a few brave winemakers continue experiment with ways to eliminate the use of sulfur dioxide (that produces sulfites in the winemaking process), but so far, there has been no successful, consistent production of quality wine without the addition of it.  So the wine industry has the distinction of being the only branch of agriculture that cannot call its product “organic” despite the fact that it is made with more than 95% organic components. Heck, even with the maximum allowable 100ppm sulfites present, the product is still 99.99% organic!

It discriminates against those winegrowers who would seek to market a consistently drinkable product while distinguishing themselves from other winegrowers. It’s also frustrating for consumers and merchants who don’t need more categories to confuse them. Furthermore, a wine without sulfites shouldn’t be equated with an organic wine, since a sulfite-free wine can be made with conventional (non-organic) grapes.
So that’s what the fuss has been all about.  And the considerable attention it has received has succeeded in distracting the public from the really important issues that the organic movement sprang up to address: soil depletion and erosion, water pollution, loss of biodiversity, ecological impact, resistance to pests, chemical dependence, and product standardization, among others.

At its core, the idea of making wine from grapes grown without chemical fertilizers, insecticides, weed killers, and other synthetic chemicals is better both for the planet and for the wine drinker because all of these things that harm the soil and the plant, often end up as residues in the wine.

To make matters even more challenging for those who would aspire to grow certified organic wine, the USDA requires that an accredited independent body of certification be responsible for certifying each winegrower, once or twice a year, to verify the grower’s adherence to the standards applied to organic farming, now recognized internationally.  Since the NOP standards are essentially derived from European standards, this only adds a layer of administration to already-busy producers and increases their costs (and yours) without any visible benefit.  So, in effect, NOP prohibits winegrowers from stating that their wines are certified by their own system – which has been in place for 30 years!

Now that you understand what the fuss is about, you can make a more informed decision.  And hopefully, if you were in the market for organic wine, you will now appreciate the value of other phrases you should perhaps look for – and will see more often than the “certified organic” label, namely, “wines made from organic grapes” or “organically grown grapes”.