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Another detour along the road to American organic wine

About three months ago, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) made a ruling that didn't get a lot of press, but is likely to produce a remarkable trifecta of negative results, discouraging organic viticulture and ensuring that the reputation of American organic wine remains dubious, all while putting American wineries at a competitive disadvantage to their counterparts around the world.  The NOSB's decision: to keep the rules prohibiting sulfites in organic wines, against the unanimous recommendation of the committee tasked with studying the issue.

The current state of affairs for organic wine is not a satisfactory one.  Sulfites play two roles in fine wine, preventing oxidation and discouraging the action of vinegar-causing bacteria.  Organic wines, which must be made without added sulfites, tend to be unstable and unsuitable for aging.  Nearly all oxidize rapidly, and in order to prevent them turning to vinegar, they must be filtered sterile.  The resulting organic wines are of uneven quality, have to be consumed young, and are marketed toward consumers who choose organic but who are not wine knowledgeable.  Most sell in the $8-$12 range.  It is small wonder that the reputation of American organic wines is low.

All this might be understandable -- a sacrifice made in the interest of a worthy ideal -- if sulfites were a synthetic product.  But they are not.  Sulfur is a naturally mined mineral, both legal and widely applied to organic vineyards.  Sulfites are also naturally produced in the fermentation process.

Sulfites do have potential health impacts, although most of the people who have negative reactions to wine are not sulfite sensitive.  I wrote about this in detail a few years ago in the post Sulfites in Wine - What's Causing my Headache.  The relatively small number of people with sulfite allergies (roughly 0.2% of the US population) need to be very careful with what the eat and drink, not just with wine, but with condiments, dried fruits, potato chips, and many other products.  But wines with sulfites already have to show the "contains sulfites" warning on the label.  The EU, typically more rigorous than the United States on labeling and safety requirements, has for years allowed their organic wines to include a maximum 100ppm of sulfites and required these wines to add "contains sulfites" to their labels. 

It is a testament to the positive impact that organically farmed grapes have on the wines they make that that so many vineyards and wineries have chosen to farm organically even thought the market has not rewarded it.  These wineries have mostly not bothered with certification.  But I think that it is indisputable that there would be more wineries farming organically, and more certifying themselves organic, if, as with vegetables, the market rewarded organic wines with premium prices.

There is a category written into the National Organic Program (NOP) standards for wineries who -- like us -- use organic grapes but also sulfites.  But it's not ideal either.  These wines are permitted to print "made with organic grapes" on their labels.  This "made with..." phrasing is what is allowed for other consumer products that include a minimum 70% organic ingredients, but don't qualify for the 95% threshold of "organic".  Think "pizza made with organic tomatoes".  This carries the implication that there are other things in there that aren't organic, and possibly other things that aren't even grapes.  Sulfites, which are measured in parts-per-million, typically make up less than one one-hundredth of one percent of a finished wine.

Back to the recent NOSB ruling.  We have not been alone in recognizing the perverse impacts of the organic standards on wine.  A group of nearly 100 growers, wineries and their supporters petitioned the NOSB in 2010 to allow all wines that were farmed organically to be labeled organic, whether or not they used sulfites in the winemaking process. This would have put us in line with the EU and Canada, among others.  When the NOSB handling committee voted 5-0 last October to recommend the change, it seemed likely that American organic wine was on its way out of its labeling purgatory.  But after a group dominated by a handful of market-leading no-sulfite-added wineries lobbied against the change, the full NOSB board voted the change down 9-5.

Where does this leave us?  The same place we've been, I guess.  But I worry that the window for public acceptance of organic wine is closing.  Certainly we'll see a continuation of the trend toward wine-specific third-party certifications like Biodynamic and SIP (Sustainability in Practice), both of which permit the use of sulfites in winemaking.

But it does feel like the world of wine is trapped in quicksand, at the same time that organics are making dramatic inroads into many foods and consumer products.  As evidence, I wrote about the challenges facing organic wines in the very early days of this blog back in 2006, musing on the low market image of organic wines and considering a proposed marketing campaign to raise their image.  I thought that was premature:

I remain convinced that if there is a marketing campaign planned, it should be aimed at revising the laws so that they are in synch with Europe, where wines that are organically farmed, and which are under a certain maximum number of parts per million of sulfur, can call themselves organic.

I can't help but feel that with the NOSB's recent decision, the wine community has missed an opportunity to both rehabilitate the reputation of organic wine and to dramatically increase the rewards for and prevalence of Earth-friendly viticulture.