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Organic wine politics cause industry hangover

NFM Staff

April 23, 2008

7 Min Read
Organic wine politics cause industry hangover

In vino veritas (?In wine there is truth?), proclaimed elders from Plato to Pliny, and anyone since who has ever had his or her tongue loosened with half a carafe. But when it comes to organic wine, is there truth in the labeling?

Distinctions among different categories of organic wine have created confusion among consumers and have left some in the industry with a bitter taste in their mouths.

What is clear is that people are buying organic vintages. In natural products stores, organic wine and beer sales grew 48 percent from 2002 to 2003, according to The Natural Foods Merchandiser?s 2003 Market Overview. Masterfully produced organic wines are helping the category shake its reputation for poor quality. In fact, the Chilean Wine Guild presented its 2004 Winemaker of the Year award to Marcelo Rematal, an organic winemaker.

Barney Feinblum, president and chief executive officer of Boulder, Colo.-based Organic Vintners, has seen the trend reflected in his sales. ?Our growth through 10 months in 2004 was about 83 percent over 2003,? he says.

People are drinking more wine in general, according to the Wine Institute, which reported that Americans drank nearly $22 billion worth of wine, or 627 million gallons, in 2003, representing more growth than any other year in the last decade. How much of that is organic wine? According to the NFM Market Overview, organic wine and beer sales totaled $54 million in ?03. In the United Kingdom, organic wine sales increased by 41 percent from April 2002 to April 2003, according to the Soil Association?s Organic Food and Farming Report.

But while the growing popularity of organic wine is global, a uniform definition of organic wine is not.

U.S. standards
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture?s National Organic Program, 100 percent organic wine must be made from 100 percent organically produced ingredients with no added sulfur-containing preservatives (sulfites). To be labeled organic, wine must be made from at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients with no added sulfites. Naturally occurring sulfites in both categories of wine must remain below 100 parts per million. The nonorganic 5 percent must be unavailable organically.

If a winemaker adds sulfites (less than 100 ppm) for quality, the wine may only use the made with organic grapes label, even if it contains 100 percent organically grown grapes. The same label applies to wines that use a minimum of 70 percent organic ingredients, with or without added sulfites—a practice that displeases many sellers of organic wine.

?The wine industry has the dubious honor of being the only one that cannot call its product organic even though it?s made with more than 95 percent of organic components,? says Veronique Raskin, co-founder of Organic Grapes Into Wine Alliance and president of The Organic Wine Co., which imports wines with the made with organic grapes label. ?It has set back the organic wine industry in the U.S.,? Feinblum says.

European standards
In Europe, the term organic wine does not appear on labels. Winemakers may only use ?made from organic grapes? or similar phrases to indicate that the grapes were grown under standards set by organizations such as ECOCERT in France. The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, a nongovernmental organization that seeks to harmonize standards across the globe, has created guidelines for certification bodies. Generally, European wines made from organic grapes do not have more than 100 ppm sulfites added, except in the United Kingdom, where the limit is 90 ppm, and in France, where the limit is 90 ppm in red wine. Australia, New Zealand and South America allow the term organic wine for products with and without added sulfites.

Some view the sulfite issue in the wine industry as they would a fly swirling in a glass of chardonnay.

?Virtually all wines have naturally occurring sulfites; there?s really no such thing as a sulfur-free wine,? Feinblum says.

Red and older white wines contain the lowest levels—5 ppm or less—while young whites may have 5-15 ppm, according to the Web site for Frey Vineyards, a Redwood Valley, Calif., organic wine producer. Raskin puts the levels a little higher, around 6-40 ppm. Still, even an egg has 6 ppm of sulfites, according to one test at an independent lab. And when winemakers add sulfites, to stabilize the wine and extend its shelf life, the levels generally don?t exceed 25-150 ppm.

However, in 1987, mainly in response to sulfite-soaked salad bar lettuce, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms passed regulations to protect people who are sensitive to sulfites, which can cause headaches, wheezing and other symptoms. It ruled that all wines containing 10 ppm or more of sulfites must state ?contains sulfites? on the label. The federal limit for sulfites in wine is 350 ppm.

When organic winemakers began to produce wines without sulfites, the flavor suffered and many people?s first impression of organic wine was that it had gone bad.

?Sulfites have been in wine for as long as wine existed, but in 1987 we had this overnight panic attack across the planet,? says Raskin. ?People called and said, ?Oh my God, you?re organic and contain sulfites?!? I?ve spent 17 years explaining to the public that nearly all wine contains sulfites naturally as a result of fermentation. We feel discriminated against as an industry because even if we?re 99.99 percent organic, some people have decided that sulfites are agents of the devil and as a result we have this quagmire.?

People began to equate poor-quality, sulfite-free wine with all organic wine. Some organic winemakers did not put the term organic on their labels for fear of losing potential consumers.

?For me the sulfite issue is a non-story,? says Bob Blue, winemaker at Bonterra Vineyards, where sales of wines made from organically grown grapes doubled between 1998 and 2002. One-third of Mendocino, Calif.-based Bonterra?s wine is sold abroad. ?Sulfites have been an ancient part of winemaking. The [sulfite-free wines] are a niche,? Blue says. ?I?d prefer to talk about organic agriculture and organic winemaking. For us, it?s been a quality decision ? about asking, ?How do we achieve the best wine?? And for us, it seemed like the organic approach was best.

?In winemaking, there have always been different ingredients allowed in each country to improve the quality based on deficiencies in the climate or soil conditions,? he says. ?What it comes down to is quality.?

From cellar to seller
Al Baylacq, partner and wine buyer at Good Earth Natural Foods in Fairfax, Calif., which has been carrying organic wines for more than a decade, says the quality sells the wine, not necessarily the organic label. ?The fact that it?s organic is just icing on the cake.?

While he arranges his wine department—which contains about 90 wines, 80 of which are organic or made with organic grapes—by varietals, he also includes signage explaining sulfites. ?Whatever we can do at the point of sale to differentiate issues helps,? he says. He believes the most powerful sales tool is the store?s guarantee of all wine. ?We?re pretty proud of what?s in that section, and our customers trust our judgment.?

Feinblum suggests retailers look beyond the USDA labels and display the wines in three categories: domestic wines made with organic grapes, imported wines made with organic grapes and wines made without sulfites.

Steve Baker, wine manager at Sundance Wine Cellars in Eugene, Ore., says the ?up-and-coming buzzword these days is biodynamic wine.? Paul Frey, of Frey Vineyards, the first and largest U.S. maker of organic wine and the first to produce biodynamic wine, agrees. ?It?s the next step,? he says. Based on holistic methods of agriculture with more of a spiritual dimension, ?biodynamism takes into consideration the seasons of the moon. It?s quite interesting,? Baker says. But the movement is still small. There?s no need yet to look for USDA definitions of ?waxing wine? and ?waning wine? anytime soon.

Shara Rutberg is a Denver-based free-lance writer. Contact her at [email protected].

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 3/p. 65

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