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“Strong Victory for Organic Winemakers” is a Loss for Consumers and Common Sense

Let me be clear. I have no general issues with organic foods or wines made from organically- grown grapes. In fact, I believe many of the best wines made today are derived from either organic or biodynamic grapes. But "organic wine" has been, and will unfortunately continue to be, a very different product.

The "strong victory" quote in the title of this article is the headline of a press release from Frey Vineyards of Redwood Valley in Mendocino County. Sent on behalf of “a coalition of organic winemakers and distributors,” it announced that the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) had elected to maintain the current regulations for wines labeled as “organic wine.” This NOSB vote reversed a decision made by the USDA.

Roussanne-at-Tablas-Creek-VineyardsThe core issue is sulfites, specifically sulfur dioxide or SO2. The original, and now continuing, rule is that “organic wines” may not include any added sulfites. None. This is similar to regulations for other organic products which also ban the addition of sulfite. I, the USDA and many others — including committed organic and biodynamic growers — have two problems with this. First, sulfur dioxide is important in the process of making quality wine and in having that wine remain sound in bottle. Second, unlike virtually all other produce — organic or otherwise — grapes have naturally-generated sulfites on their skin. Thus, it is almost impossible for any wine to be sulfite free, even if sulfites are not added.

The organic winemakers claim maintaining current labeling laws will prevent consumer confusion. I believe it simply confuses them in a different way. It is true that other organic products are not allowed to add sulfites. But, based on that, the few — very few — people who are sensitive to sulfites buy organic products knowing them to be free of sulfites. Consumers cannot do that with wine. Even with this NOSB ruling, “organic wines” may contain sulfites.

Winery quotes within the press release show how easily consumers can be confused by this rule. “Organic wine has always been defined as preservative-free with no added sulfites,” says Phil La Rocca, founder of La Rocca Vineyards in Forest Ranch, CA. That is true and a clear statement. However, Paul Frey, President of Frey Vineyards in Redwood Valley, CA states, “The preservative sulfite has never been allowed in any organic food that carries the USDA organic seal.” That is a confusing statement. It implies to consumers not well-versed in the law that “organic wine” does not include sulfites. The catch is the law states added sulfites are termed “a preservative.” Naturally occurring sulfites are not. Frey isn’t really saying there are no sulfites, just that there are no sulfites added.

United States’ law requires all wines with sulfites in excess of 10mg/liter (10 parts per million) to display the text “Contains Sulfites” on the label. Wines with less than that amount, as determined by analysis, may omit the warning. Wines which, by analysis, show less than 1ppm may be labeled as “No Sulfites.” These are the phrases that people with sulfite sensitivity need to look for, “Contains Sulfites” or “No Sulfites.” An “Organic Wine” may well have more than 10ppm and therefore be required to bear the “Contains Sulfites” warning.

All the NOSB ruling really did was continue a labeling policy that consumers don’t understand in order to preserve the market share of a small number of companies which elect to not add sulfites. A change in the rule would not have forced them to add sulfites, nor would it have prevented them from omitting “Contains Sulfites” warnings on eligible products, or even using “No Sulfites” labeling. What it does do is prevent hundreds of other wineries from labeling their products “organic wine,” even though they are made solely from organically-grown grapes in certified-organic vineyards.

If the USDA-recommended change had been adopted, a wine could have contained up to 100ppm of sulfites and be labeled “organic wine,” assuming all other criteria for that designation were met. In reality, the average sulfite level in wines is less than 80ppm. Many individual wines are far lower. U.S. law prohibits any wine from having more than 350ppm or 350mg of sulfites. Note that the human body produces about 1000mg of sulfites per day on its own.

Some people do have a sensitivity to sulfites. Studies suggest such sensitivity is very rare and is essentially limited to 5% to 10% of those individuals who have asthma. In those people, exposure to large doses of sulfites can bring on asthmatic reactions, nasal irritation, hives, etc. But some medical studies have shown no reaction whatsoever from sulfite-sensitive individuals when drinking a glass of wine with sulfite concentrations of 150ppm — 50% higher than the proposed rule change would have allowed. There is no confirmed medical evidence that sulfites cause headaches either, though many people have that misperception.

SO2 is SO2. The press release, and the appeals of organic winemakers and their supporters to the NOSB, repeatedly refer to added sulfites as “a synthetic preservative.” SO2 isn’t a very complicated compound. Use of the word “synthetic” makes added SO2 sound sinister. But manufactured SO2 isn’t any different from that which occurs naturally.

According to Pat Henderson, senior winemaker at Kenwood Vineyards, sulfur dioxide is “without a doubt the most important additive that is used in winemaking.” Vineyard managers use sulfur dioxide as an antioxidase, sprinkling it on the picked grapes before they are taken to the winery. This preserves the freshness and bright flavors while preventing browning of the fruit and juice by acting on the enzymes which encourage oxidation. Winemakers also use it to prevent oxidation to prevent browning, formation of acetaldehyde and limit the actions of tyrosinase.

Sulfur dioxide is also an antimicrobial agent. By using just the right amount, winemakers can kill bad microbes without affecting good ones. For some winemakers, this includes ambient yeasts that can take fermentations in the wrong direction or result in off flavors. Winemakers also use SO2 to control malolactic fermentation and sanitize barrels, corks and equipment.

There are a number of bacteria and yeasts that cause wine to spoil. They include Acetobacter (vinegar bacteria), Brettanomyces (smells of barnyard), Lactobacillus (can smell like dirty socks), and Pediococcus. Sulfur dioxide is an important part of controlling them. I suspect you and I agree that wine which smells of vinegar or dirty socks is not appealing.

Failure to add SO2 in the vineyard or winery can allow oxidation and bacteria to run amok. White wines may brown early in their lives. The off aromas and flavors noted above may occur. In extreme cases, wine can even begin to ferment again in the bottle. These are the risks taken by winemakers wishing to qualify for an “organic wine” label. But, really, the risk is taken by those consumers who buy the wine.

Excessive use of sulfur dioxide isn’t good. It can result in excessive sulfite levels in the wine. It may also cause off aromas, including smells of burnt match or even rotten eggs. Winemakers use sulfur dioxide very carefully and, usually, in as small an amount as possible to achieve the desired results. They stop using sulfur several weeks before bottling to ensure that “free SO2” dissipates and doesn’t wind up in the bottle.

I believe most people who seek “organic wines” are really looking for good wine made from organic fruit. Those people need to look for these phrases on the label: “Made from organically-grown grapes” or “biodynamic wine.” People legitimately sensitive to sulfites should seek wines that say “No Sulfites” or at least do not bear the “Contains Sulfites” warning. People who are curious or feeling lucky may want to try an “organic wine.”

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This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2011 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.