The United States Department of Agriculture is considering a proposed rule that would prevent wineries from labeling their wines "made with organic grapes" if sulfur dioxide -- one of the many chemical compounds known as sulfites -- is added at any time during the winemaking process.
A USDA representative explained that the proposal stems from the Organic Food Production Act of 1990, which states that food is not considered organic if sulfur dioxide is added. However, opponents of the proposal say that the USDA doesn't have a clear understanding of the distinction between organic grapegrowing and organic winemaking.
"This is a technical issue," said Simon Siegl, president of the American Vintners Association. "There is no sulfur dioxide in the grapes themselves; it's added to the wine. It's a matter of defining how far into the winemaking process sulfites can go."
Sulfites are commonly added to wine (and other foods) to act as a preservative and disinfectant; without them, wines tend to oxidize rapidly. However, sulfites have been blamed for causing headaches, allergic reactions and asthma attacks. Even wines that don't contain added sulfites do contain small amounts of sulfur dioxide, which occurs naturally during fermentation.
Siegl explained that "organic wines" contain no added sulfites, but the "made with organic grapes" label indicates that the grapes are grown without the use of any synthetic additives, such as herbicides or chemical fertilizers. Siegl and others say that if the USDA removes the label, smaller wineries will feel the crush.
"It would drastically lower our sales," said Greg Powers, winegrower for Badger Mountain Vineyard in Kennewick, Wash. "It limits our capabilities. Sulfur is a preservative; without it, we don't feel confident in [the wines'] longevity."
Powers explained that Badger Mountain needs sulfur dioxide for added shelf life, particularly for wines exported to the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Japan. But if the label regulations change, his wines, which are carried in health-food stores, will lose their marketability. "We claim all our grapes are organically grown," said Powers. "The fact that we add natural sulfur to the wines -- no man-made chemicals -- still makes it organic."
The AVA is organizing several wineries to petition the USDA on the proposed rule. "We're working to ameliorate the prohibition," said Siegl. "We expect a reasonable, responsible action by the USDA."
Read ratings of Badger Mountain wines.