Organic Grapes, Organic Wine The Harvest is Bountiful, but the Labeling Controversy is Still Fermenting

In just eight years, Robert Sinskey’s vineyards grew from 15 to 100 acres. But the expansion masked a problem: Sinskey’s vineyards were in decline. The fruit just wasn’t ripening, and he suspected it was related to the soil, which looked fractured and bare. “We felt something had to be wrong with the basic practices of modern farming,” he says.

organic wine
Robert Sinskey grows grapes organically at his 100-acre vineyard in California’s Napa Valley. But his wine is not officially “organic.”

Sinskey switched to organic farming in 1990, slowly phasing out synthetic herbicides on his grapes until 2001 when he became a certified organic grower. His productive vineyards now cover 200 acres on six different properties. But while every grape in his Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Merlot wines are organic, not a single bottle carries the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s green-and-white “USDA organic” label.

Organic grapes do not necessarily make organic wines. An organic vineyard is not the whole story; the process in the winery must be organic, too. Sinskey labels his wines “made with organic grapes’ instead of “certified organic” because he, along with almost every other winemaker in the world, adds a small amount of sulfites, a preservative that prevents oxidation and bacterial spoilage. In America, wines with added sulfites cannot display the “USDA organic” label, even when the grapes are 100 percent organic. Complicating the issue is the fact that, although commercial sulfite is an additive, sulfite naturally results from yeast fermentation during wine production.

U.S. sales of certified organic wine and those made with organic grapes hit $80 million last year, rising 28 percent since 2004, according to the Organic Trade Association (OTA). Today, wine enthusiasts buy nearly twice as much organic wine as they did in 2003. The association says it expects organic wine sales to grow about 17 percent each year through 2008.

The California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), the largest certifying body in the state, inspects 20 wineries and 8,000 acres of grapes. Organic grapes account for less than two percent of California’s 550,000 total grape-growing acres. Jake Lewin, director of marketing for CCOF, says there is increasing interest in both organic grapes and organic winemaking. The number of certified organic acres, however, is growing faster than the number of certified organic wineries.

To Be or Not to Be Organic

What is, and what is not, an organic wine remains a confusing subject for consumers and a source of heated debate for industry experts. Winemakers who add sulfites believe that farming practices, such as removing herbicides and pesticides from the vineyard, should determine whether or not a wine is labeled organic. Others are wary of relaxing the USDA labeling standards, since added sulfites aren’t needed to make wine.

Sulfite caught national attention in the 1980s when it became commonly used on restaurant salad bars and grocery store produce aisles. It kept lettuce crisp for days, but at high levels, as many as 3,000 parts per million (ppm), some customers got sick. Reactions to sulfites in wine can include a quickened pulse, lung irritation, skin redness and rashes. In most wines, sulfites occur naturally during fermentation, adding about 10 ppm. Conventional winemakers add an average of 100 ppm more during production.

Based on a study, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determined that one percent of the population, primarily asthmatics, showed signs of sulfite sensitivity at 100 ppm. In 1990, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act, which regulated sulfites and additives, and recommended label wording. But because of political wrangling, the act didn’t go into effect until 2002.

According to the current USDA standards, a wine must have one ppm or less to carry a “no sulfites’ label. Wines containing fewer than 10 ppm may be labeled “contains only naturally occurring sulfites—no sulfites added,” or there may be no mention of sulfites at all. Wines with more than 10 ppm must be marked “contains sulfites,” but conventional wines are allowed to contain up to 350 ppm. A certified organic wine must have fewer than 10 ppm occurring naturally. Wines carrying “made with organic grapes’ on the label must contain less than 100 ppm of combined natural and added sulfites.

But Roger Boulton, a viticulture professor at University of California (UC), Davis, says the FDA based its sulfite sensitivity statistics on a flawed experiment. “I believe less than a tenth of a percent of the U.S. population falls into the sulfite-sensitive category,” he says.

Sinskey also doubts that adding a few dozen parts per million can have the purported allergic effects. “I”m a sulfur-sensitive person and an asthmatic, so I’m well aware of the effects of overexposure,” he says. “At the levels we’re using in wine, I think it’s a non-issue.”

Growing Green Grape

Michel Ginoulhac, winemaker and co-owner of The Organic Wine Company, imports wines from France, where added sulfites are allowed in certified organic wine along with Italy and other countries. He’s unhappy that his wines must be labeled “made with organic grapes’ in America. “We are 99.99 percent organic,” he says.

Ginoulhac’s business partner, Veronique Raskin, believes that concerns about winery practices should be secondary to convincing winemakers to give up their pesticides. She worries that the USDA labeling standards are scaring off potential converts. “If the standards are so high that nobody can reach them, most people will walk away,” she says.

“The ideal in organic food is to make it as pure as possible,” counters Roddy Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association. “It’s obviously more expensive to do it the natural, purely organic way.”

Supporters of the current organic labeling standards point out that, even if sulfites do occur naturally in wine, adding a preservative goes against the consumer’s expectations of organic food. Organic winemakers bristle at the idea that sulfites are necessary for winemaking. “That’s the easy way out,” says China Bend Winery proprietor Bart Alexander. “To grow a grape crop organically requires additional expense, energy and care. Why dump nasty chemicals in the wine? When a wine label says organic, people expect that it’s made without chemicals,” he says.

The Last Word on Labeling

Philip LaRocca, who started making organic wines at LaRocca Vineyards in the “80s, has no objection to added sulfites, but thinks buyers benefit from the additional information. “The winemakers who are growing grapes organically have the right to put that on their label. But organic winemakers have the right to print that they’re doing it without sulfites,” he explains.

Winemaking is much more difficult without sulfites, and many of the early organic wines were inconsistent at best. They were too often organic by neglect rather than by design. They were fragile and didn’t age well (or so rumor had it). And, worst of all, they tasted weird. After years of costly trial and error, organic wines are improving, and winemakers are beginning to see more natural farming techniques as a way to produce wines as unique as the soil beneath the grapes.

Sulfite additives are not new to winemaking — producers in Italy and France have been following this practice for hundreds of years. Likewise, pesticide use in vineyards has been common practice for more than a half-century. But when the principles of organic farming and production began to hit the wine industry in the early 1990s, reactions from long-time grape growers and vintners ranged from bewilderment to hostility. John Schumacher, who produces conventional wines under the Hallcrest label and organic wines under Organic Wine Works, says the emphasis of his college education was how to use chemicals to solve specific problems. “I pretty much had to throw out everything I learned during my second two years of study at UC Davis,” he recalls.

Adding sulfites to wine makes it almost immune to spoilage and contamination. Without sulfites to mop up the product of oxidation, organic winemakers have a narrow margin of error, explains LaRocca. Oxygen levels must be closely monitored. The processing facilities must be spotless or bacteria will contaminate the vintage. And the temperature, from the moment the grapes enter the winery until the bottle is uncorked at the table, must remain at less than 65 degrees. “I don’t think that point was adequately communicated from the producer to the retailer originally,” says Scott Pactor, owner of Appellation Wines, an organic wine store in New York City. “As a result, a lot of organic wine was no longer good by the time it reached the consumers’ house.” Once served, it can also spoil if left exposed to the air, and the white wine will turn brown like a slice of apple left on the kitchen countertop.

A Bad Start

The slow learning curve along with public confusion over labeling quickly made organic wine synonymous with bad wine, an image it has been trying to counter ever since. Schumacher had first-hand experience dealing in both conventional and organic wine: “Our organic wine nearly diminished our reputation for traditional wine.”

Current reviews of organic wine by top experts remain mixed. Ed McCarthy, co-author of Wine for Dummies, is unimpressed. “I know the wines; I’ve tried them. They aren’t very good in general. They haven’t proven themselves,” he says. But Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher, authors of The Wall Street Journal Guide to Wine: New and Improved, think otherwise. “Wines in the organic aisles are finally hitting their stride,” says Gaiter. “These eco-friendly wines, in many cases, have moved beyond their funky past. They’re worth discovering.” (See sidebar for more of their opinions.)

Kevin Zraly, author of Windows on the World Complete Wine Course, doubts that the technical approach to production determines a wine’s quality. “I think the question is not whether it’s organically grown or labeled,” he says. “The end quality of the wine depends on the winemaker.”

Tony Coturri has certified organic vineyards and uses no chemicals at any point in his winemaking. But he doesn’t use the word “organic” on the Coturri Winery labels. “In all honesty, wine consumers have not embraced quality and organic in the same line yet. They still have the attitude that organic wine is a lower quality than what you can get in a conventional wine. It’s a stigma,” he explains. But his reasoning for not carrying an organic label goes beyond market prejudice. In his view, organic practices are the means to a great wine, and a wine’s quality, not a USDA symbol on the label, should capture the attention. “If you’re strictly looking for organically grown, no-sulfite wine, then you’re looking at what I consider a lesser-quality product. These wines have to stand on their own merits,” says Coturri.

Retailers Rallying Around

Increasingly, retailers believe they do. Lesley Townsend of Astor Wines in New York, has found that organic wines fare well under sip-swish-and-spit scrutiny. “Our customers are never going to buy a wine simply because it’s from an organic wine maker,” explains Townsend. “The simple truth is that wineries following more natural techniques are typically places that are putting more effort into their vineyards and their winery practices. Often that effort translates into a better-tasting product. The more people drink the mass-produced wines found at any corner store, the more they start looking for wines that offer unique flavors and aromas,” she says.

Not only are organic wines made differently, they taste different, too, claims Coturri. Small amounts of sulfites are undetectable, but they mask some flavors and amplify others. “Irony of ironies,” notes Coturri. “Natural flavor used to be considered kind of funky. Now consumers are starting to understand it’s not funky; it’s earthy. You’re tasting a component of earthiness that all foods should have.”

Biodynamic Farming Provides Taste of Place

Winemakers hoping to produce more unique wines can move beyond organic to biodynamic farming, a set of techniques that have been popular for years in Europe, most notably in France. Philosopher Rudolf Steiner developed biodynamics in the early 20th century to solve a farm’s problems working with, rather than against, natural cycles.

Today, biodynamic farmers treat the farm or vineyard as a self-sustaining ecosystem. They use natural predators instead of pesticides, save seeds, use compost for fertilizer and grow crops that are appropriate for the local environment. In winemaking, this means that winemakers must study the soil and carefully decide which varietals will best express the vineyards. “Biodynamic farming goes far beyond organic farming,” says Zraly. “These people are dedicated.”

McCarthy agrees: “I”m a fan of any movement that removes chemicals from the vineyard. As a group, biodynamic wines are very good.”

Demeter is the biodynamic certifying body in the U.S. To qualify, winemakers must be certified organic for three years and adhere to biodynamic principles. Demeter does allow sulfite additives in biodynamic wines. But adherents believe that too much tampering can rob the wine of biodynamic farming’s most alluring promise: better terroir, the French word for the taste of a vineyard. “Often the terroir gets lost in the processing,” says Coturri.

Pactor focuses on selling organic and biodynamic wines at his wine store because, despite lingering stigmas, he believes they have a sense of place. “When you’re not intervening with chemicals, the vineyard is able to reveal itself, and the grapes communicate that,” he says.

California Terroir

Although California is one of the best grape-growing environments in the world, Coturri believes it still doesn’t express its terroir. He’s pursuing biodynamic certification as a way to make wines that are uniquely Californian and uniquely his. “Our society is so tuned in to the idea that things have to be perfect that we don’t allow for individual qualities,” he says.

Sinskey, whose use of added sulfites kept his wines from becoming USDA certified organic, also began adopting biodynamic methods recently. This year, Demeter certified nearly 40 percent of his acreage. Sinskey’s motivation, once again, was the health of his vineyard. “I became interested in biodynamics because the principles enrich and heal the soil,” he says. Ultimately he wants a better and healthier wine. “I have two young daughters who are growing up in our vineyard,” Sinskey says. “I want them to be able to wander through the vines and eat whatever they want without worrying about the chemicals. Wine is a food, and you shouldn’t be afraid of what you’re putting in your mouth,” he adds.