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U.S. and Europe Have Different Definitions of Organic Wine

A fight over labeling leaves American producers at odds over the meaning of organic, even as the European Union allows added sulfites

Dana Nigro
Posted: February 24, 2012

What is the difference between certified “organic” wine and wine “made with organic grapes” in the United States? As far as the contents, added sulfites—up to 100 parts per million, or 1/2000th of an ounce in a glass—and that’s it. But on the label, only the former can display the easy-to-understand, green USDA Organic seal that helps producers attract customers seeking “green” products. The distinction has sparked a battle between winemakers over what organic wine should be.

The U.S. standards differ from new rules in the European Union, which as of the 2012 harvest will allow winemakers to use the label "organic wine." (Previously, only "wine made from organic grapes" was permitted.) In early February, an EU committee agreed upon standards for organic winemaking practices—including the allowed addition of some sulfites.

Due to the discrepancy, “organic wine” has been left on unequal footing in a three-year trade agreement, signed Feb. 15, recognizing the U.S. and EU organics programs as equivalent. Most products certified in either the United States or European Union can be marketed as organic in both places starting June 1, eliminating the need to get a second set of certifications. American “made with organic grapes” wines can soon be sold as organic in Europe, but European “organic wine” bottlings with added sulfites will still need to carry the “made with organic grapes” label in American markets. (The same problem persists in U.S. agreements with Canada, which has allowed added sulfites in organic wine since 2009).

“If we could put everyone into the same category who is using 100 percent organic grapes, there could have been about 800 more winemakers around the world who could get into the U.S. market and use the USDA Organic seal,” said Paolo Bonetti, president of Organic Vintners, a Colorado-based importer who feels the National Organic Program’s labeling regulations for wine are confusing consumers and stunting growth. With more volume, it would be easier for retailers to devote a section to organic wines.

Rankled by the U.S. rules, Bonetti and three California wineries who specialize in organically grown wines—backed by 35 other businesses and 60 individuals—petitioned the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) in April 2010 to allow all wines made entirely from organic grapes to be labeled “organic,” regardless of whether the preservative sulfur dioxide is added.

Quibbling over a widely used preservative, the group claimed, discourages more winegrowers from embracing organic certification and eschewing synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides in favor of more natural methods. “Without the USDA Organic seal, many consumers don’t understand that it’s an organic product,” said Bonetti, who filed the petition with Barra of Mendocino, Paul Dolan Vineyards and Redwood Valley Cellars. If consumers won’t pay a premium for the organically grown wines, as they do with organic milk, Bonetti said, “there’s no incentive for farmers doing really good work.”

Although an NOSB committee originally approved the petition, the full board voted 9 to 5 to reject it in December 2011, after another coalition of organic winemakers and distributors—including Frey, LaRocca Vineyards, the Organic Wine Works and Organic Vintages—argued to keep the standards the same. They were backed by the Minnesota-based Organic Consumers Association, which collected more than 10,000 signatures opposing the petition.

“If you’re going to call something organic across the board, whether it be wine or bread or pasta sauce, you should try to keep the standard to the highest level,” said California winegrower Phil LaRocca, who has been making no-sulfite-added organic wines for 30 years and helped develop the original standards.

Sulfur, a naturally occurring element, is permitted in organic vineyards as a non-toxic fungicide. Added during wine production or bottling, the compound sulfur dioxide protects against oxidation and microbes, keeping wine fresh, stable and free of flaws throughout shipping and non-refrigerated storage. A small but growing number of producers make no-sulfite-added wines; however, most winemakers believe some sulfites are essential to making quality wine for commercial distribution.

LaRocca and his group consider the form of sulfur dioxide added to wine to be synthetic, which violates the principles of organics. “Our fear is that this would open the door to other issues. Why couldn’t a breadmaker say they would like to use calcium propionate as a preservative in their breads?” asked LaRocca. He acknowledges that making wine without sulfites is not easy but feels the “made with organic grapes” label is a fair way to accommodate the producers who do so.

In the United States, both “organic wine” and wine “made with organic grapes” are made from grapes only from certified organic vineyards and are produced in certified wineries. But the former have less than 10 parts per million of sulfites, accounting for those that may occur naturally during the fermentation process, while the latter can contain added sulfites up to 100 parts per million, well below the 350 parts per million allowed in conventional wine. (The “contains sulfites” label is required because some asthmatics have adverse reactions; while many other people blame sulfites for headaches and allergic responses, these may be caused by histamines and tannins in the wines.)

In contrast, the new EU rules for “organic wine” allow a maximum of 100 parts per million for red wine (compared to 150 for conventional reds) and 150 parts per million for whites and rosés (compared to 200 for their conventional counterparts). Sweet wines are allotted an extra 30 parts per million as more sulfites are typically needed to prevent residual sugar from fermenting in the bottle. Canada allows up to 100 parts per million in its organic wines.

When it comes to the distinctions between organic food labels and wine labels in the United States, even sophisticated organic shoppers can get confused, Bonetti believes. In both cases, “organic” must contain 95 percent organic ingredients, allowing for processing aids for which there are no organic options. However, in the organic foods category, the “made with …” label means the item is only required to have a minimum of 70 percent organic ingredients. For example, a salsa made with organic tomatoes but conventional onions couldn’t be “organic” salsa but rather “made with organic tomatoes.”

Because wine is essentially a single-ingredient product, any wines that just say “made with organic grapes” are entirely organic grapes. A wine that contains up to 30 percent non-organic grapes would have to be labeled with another category—“made with organic grapes and non-organic grapes”—and the grapes must be different varieties, such as 70 percent organic Cabernet Sauvignon and 30 percent non-organic Merlot. (Wines with less than 70 percent organic ingredients can only list that in an ingredients statement, with the corresponding percentage.)

For now, Bonetti is taking a break from the time and expense of trying to change the regulations, concentrating instead on educating customers about organics, labeling and sulfites. But he’s not ruling out a petition rematch in the future. “If someone gives me $40,000 to $50,000,” he added, “I will do it all again in five years, when the 15 board members are all new.”

James Haug
Sebsatopol, California —  March 15, 2012 5:11pm ET
This issue keeps dogging the US organic wine industry.

We do not sell "no sulfite added" (NSA) wine because it is usually oxidized and tastes spoiled.

I wonder if it is a health risk to drink. Has anyone looked into that?
Pam Strayer
Oakland CA —  February 28, 2014 11:04am ET
Where is the Wine Institute when you need them? I look forward to the day when they step in to this issue and resolve it in favor of making no added sulfite a separate designation, leaving Organic Wine to be the wording applied to "Made with Organic Grapes" wines so there will be parity with Europe.

As it is now, any winery can put the word Organic Wine into its BRAND NAME - for example, Gulfi Organic Wines, from Sicily - and sell it in the US. There is nothing that protects consumers from that. And if that's the case, who needs the USDA Organic Wine certification?

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