Prohibition's legacy and the marginalization of organic wine
March 09, 2021
Prohibition may have ended nearly 90 years ago, but its legacies remain, often hidden, in the way that wine and other alcoholic beverages are marketed and sold in America. I've written about the unintended consequences of the 21st Amendment which repealed Prohibition and as a side effect carved out an exception to the Commerce Clause that has made every step forward in the fight for direct shipping a battle between actors in the winery, wholesale, and retail spheres. Another effect is that because there is an express prohibition in the federal standards from any statement that might "suggest a relationship between the consumption of alcohol, wine, or any substance found within the wine, and health benefits or effects on health" a winery can't talk in advertising or on their website about the studies that show links between red wine and heart health.
Understanding the NOP Standards
One consequence of Prohibition's legacy is in how wine is treated by the National Organic Program (NOP) standards. The organic labeling standards, as written for most products, contain four levels of organic purity. In descending order:
- 100% Organic
- All ingredients, processing aids, and facility must be certified organic
- Can use the organic seal
- All agricultural ingredients must be certified organic, but up to 5% of non-organic, non-agricultural ingredients are allowed
- Can use the organic seal
- Made with Organic
- At least 70% of ingredients must be certified organic
- Must state the ingredients that are organic ("made with organic apples")
- Cannot include USDA organic seal anywhere or represent finished product as organic
- Specific Organic Ingredients
- For use of organic ingredients in a non-organic product. Does not need to be certified.
- Organic can only be used in ingredients list and not on front panel
- Cannot use the organic seal or state organic anywhere other than the ingredients list.
How Wine Is Treated Differently: Cue Strom Thurmond
Wine is a pretty easy product to measure, as it's typically more than 99% grapes and winemaking additions (yeasts, nutrients for that yeast, acid, and an amount of sulfur measured in parts per million) are minor in volume. More natural-leaning wineries like us don't add yeast or nutrients at all. And yet, the organic regulations put a unique hurdle in front of wine: "Any use of added sulfites means that the wine is only eligible for the 'made with' labeling category and may not use the USDA organic seal." Because we add sulfites in the winemaking process, the highest tier that we can qualify for is the "Made with Organic" tier.
Pause for record scratch here. What?
Before I go further, I want to acknowledge that there are people with serious sulfite allergies and sensitivities. I have found various government estimates that between 0.2% and 1% of Americans have sulfite sensitivities to one degree or another. That's not an insignificant number, although most sensitivities are mild. The most serious sulfite allergies can cause asthma or even in rare cases anaphylaxis, although these reactions are extremely rare. It is in theory for those people that wines have to carry a "contains sulfites" declaration on their label. Whether this declaration (which has led a lot of people to attribute to sulfites unrelated symptoms such as the "red wine headache") is wise is the topic for another blog. In any case the presence of sulfites already has to be declared. But sulfites, in and of themselves, are not inorganic... except according to the NOP standards, when they're used in wine.
Why turns out to be a legacy of prohibition. In an article for the Tribune Newspapers, Bill St. John recounts the influence of then-Senator Strom Thurmond, segregationist, teetotaler and avowed opponent of alcohol, whose "crowning achievement" was a warning label on alcohol whose purpose was "not to inform but to frighten". That is how the "contains sulfites" labeling requirement ended up in the regulations of the BATF (now TTB) rather than the FDA. There are many common food products that contain higher concentrations of sulfites than wine (including dried fruit, frozen potatoes, frozen shrimp and many condiments) but none of them are required to declare a warning like this. Only alcohol.
Why the Standards Haven't Evolved
According to Geoffrey Jones and Emily Grandjean's working paper for Harvard Business Review Creating the Market for Organic Wine: Sulfites, Certification, and Green Values, the standard we have today is a result of two things: the stigmatization of sulfites in alcohol, and economic protectionism. When a coalition of wineries and organic farming advocates got together in 2012 to propose adopting the same standards used in Europe and most of the rest of the world (a 100ppm cap on sulfites for organic wines, as opposed to the 350ppm cap for "conventional" wines) a handful of wineries making sulfite-free wines, most notably Frey Vineyards, pushed back. The NOP board sided with that group.
In the conclusion to his article Reds, Whites, and Sulfites: Examining Different Organic Wine Regulation Practices in the United States and the European Union in the Northwestern Journal of International Law & Business, author Ryan Puszka points out that the health difference between the American and world standards is negligible:
"For all ecologically and nearly all health concerned purposes, the penalized winemakers produce an identical product to certified wine producers from completely organic grapes. The logical foundation of the current NOP scheme and resulting disenfranchisement, then, is substantiated by flimsy health claims about extremely marginal cases that thinly veil an economic desire to narrow competition in the market."
So, there's a coalition of anti-alcohol interests, natural wine purists, and sulfite-free wineries who have banded together to make the "Organic Wine" status hard to achieve in the United States. Why should we care? Because having the standards written as they are means that organic wine is unlikely to ever be more than a niche product. And having organic wine no more than a niche product means that grapes -- which are one of the easiest crops to farm organically -- are going to be farmed organically a lot less widely than they should be. And that should concern us all.
To understand why, it's helpful to know what sulfites are doing in winemaking. After all, sulfur is a mineral, and a perfectly legal thing to put on an organic vineyard, used for its antimicrobial and antifungal properties. On vines, it's a common tool to keep mildew from spreading. In winemaking, it discourages the action of yeasts and other bacteria. Put in too much and your wine won't ferment. But in small amounts, it allows fermentation yeasts to proceed while inhibiting the action of vinegar-causing bacteria and other spoilage processes. It also absorbs oxygen, protecting a wine from oxidation as it ages in barrel or bottle.
Implications on the Reputation of Organic Wine
As you might expect from my list of sulfur's properties, many of the early organic-labeled sulfite-free wines were unstable and short-lived. The ones that were shelf-stable tended to have been highly fined and filtered and otherwise processed in a way that tended to make them unexciting. And those early impressions of organic wines have lingered in the marketplace. To this day, wineries like us dread being put on the "organic wine" shelf, because fine wine drinkers tend to avoid it, assuming it's aimed at people for whom the organic seal is more important than the wine quality.
The "made with organic grapes" option might seem like an equally good substitute, but it hasn't gotten much traction either. I'd speculate that this is for three reasons. First, there's that lingering doubt because of the many flawed or mediocre organic wines about whether organic grapes is actually a good thing. Second, the NOP clearly intends that the classification be a lesser one that implies that there are things in there that are not organic, and maybe not even grapes. Think "Pasta Sauce, made with Organic Tomatoes". The implication is clear that there are things in there that aren't organic, and aren't tomatoes. Third, you can't use the organic seal. As it was intended to be, the seal is the shorthand for certified organic. You can put extra words on your label, but there are always lots of words. The seal stands out.
Why We Should Care: Less Organically Farmed Land
If there's not a great reason to put yourself into the organic classification you're eligible for, wineries would be excused for not bothering to go through the work and expense of certifying themselves organic. And that's what's happened: according to Jones and Grandjean, in 2017 organic acreage represented only 2% of vineyard land in California, and had actually declined 10% since 2013.
To be sure, some of the prime grape acres have let their organic certification lapse but have adopted Biodynamic certification, which requires the same elimination of chemicals in the vineyard but allows a limited (under 100ppm) addition of sulfites in the winery. Biodynamics, which also incorporates elements of biodiversity and soil microbial health, has garnered a reputation as a farming method adopted by some of the world's greatest vineyards. Of course it also comes with elements that speak of cosmic energies and cycles of the moon, which tends to limit its audience a bit.
Many other vineyards are being farmed organically but not certified. I talk to vintners all the time who have chosen that path. And of course sustainability certification have proliferated. But I don't think that either of these are ideal outcomes. Someone who does not have to be audited for a certification is more likely to hedge, and it's difficult to know how many of these vineyards would actually be able to pass an organic certification. Verification matters. And as for sustainability certifications, they do a good job on breadth, asking wineries to look at things that neither organics nor Biodynamics addresses, like renewable energy, water use reduction, or wildlife passthroughs. But, by and large, sustainability certifications fall short on rigor. Most allow the use of Roundup and many chemical pesticides. You can make a legitimate critique that many are little more than greenwashing.
In any case, it is a failure of the national organic standards that they have left air in the room for these other approaches to proliferate. Ryan Puszka's conclusion on this is scathing:
"Furthermore, the no-added sulfite NOP standards disincentivizes U.S. and European winemakers from attaining organic certification, as they may not deem the “made with organic grape” certification worthwhile in light of the high costs associated with certification. Moreover, this confusing system renders wine labels even more indecipherable than they already are, requiring customers to know the different international standards of “organic” and “made with organic . . . “. The net result is consumer confusion and economic inefficiency. All of these issues undermine the legitimacy of national organics programs."
What Comes Next
For us, the failures of the existing certifications are another reason we're excited to embrace Regenerative Organic Certification. There is a carve-out in the TTB's application of the NOP standards that a wine that farms their grapes organically, produces the wine in an organic-certified facility, and uses less than the international standard (100ppm) of sulfites can't use the NOP seal but can use the seal of their certifier. The good folks at CCOF have a useful document explaining the rules, which contains the below image:
The Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) logo will be treated similarly. Thankfully, ROC is following the international organic (and Biodynamic) standard and allowing ROC labeling on wines that are made from Regenerative Organic Certified grapes, produced in an organic certified facility, and use no more than 100ppm of sulfites.
So, while you won't see a USDA Organic seal on a bottle of Tablas Creek any time soon, we're hopeful that starting in 2021 you'll see the ROC logo on our bottles. And together we can help put one last legacy of Strom Thurmond to bed.