Organic grape farmers feel they are getting the short end of the stick when it comes to the current labeling of certified organic wines.
By Brooke Rewa, LuxEco Editorial Assistant
Organic shopping can be confusing. Organic wine shopping, even more so. Many of us don’t have time to stop and read every ingredient on the products we are looking to purchase at the grocery store. This is why we look for known “stamps of approval.” The biggest stamp we look for when shopping organic is that of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA sets very high standards for what can be labeled certified organic; which is why we as consumers trust them. They have taken these standards to new levels in the wine industry and it could be doing more harm than good for the world of organics.
When perusing your local grocer for an organic wine you will find two different labels; one clearly labeled certified organic and one labeled “made with organic grapes”. This is where things get confusing and where organic grape farmers get upset. In order to be labeled certified organic by the USDA wine must be made from 100% organic grapes and contain no added sulfites. Sulfites occur naturally when grapes are fermented to make wine, it is impossible for any wine to be completely sulfite-free. Wine makers have been adding sulfites for centuries. Sulfur protects wine from oxidizing, allows for a longer shelf life and prevents unwanted organisms from growing in the wine. Any wine containing added sulfites is not allowed to be labeled organic.
Wine labeled “made with organic grapes,” is also made from 100% organic grapes, the only difference is the added sulfites. However, these wines are only allowed to contain 100 ppm (parts per million), about 1/100 of 1%. Conventional wines are allowed to contain added sulfites up to 450 ppm. Many wine makers feel adding sulfites is an important step in ensuring the quality of their product. Without sulfites wine can be very unstable leading to easy spoilage and a much less sustainable product.
I attended a seminar this weekend at the Natural Products Expo that argued for the benefits of allowing any wine made of 100% organic grapes to be labeled certified organic by the USDA. Those in favor of this argue that the current labeling causes confusion among consumers and ultimately pushes them away from buying any form of organic wine. It’s estimated that the organic wine market has lagged more than 10% behind the growth of the overall organic market. Supporters of the change in labeling believe that putting all wines made with 100% organic grapes under the same USDA Certified Organic label will be just what the organic wine market needs to put it on the map with organic shoppers. More selections at affordable prices, organic wines that are allowed time to age and given more of a chance to compete with the high end wines of the world, overall a more marketable product.
Perhaps the most important point on this side of the argument is how much the change in labeling could benefit organic farming. Creating a stronger organic wine market would give grape farmers a reason to go organic and those who are already doing it a reason to continue and expand. Less pesticides in our soil and groundwater seem to be a very valid reasons to stand behind this cause.
Those who are already making USDA Certified Organic wine want to keep the current labeling. They are making wine without sulfites and believe that the USDA Certified Organic stamp is what tells consumers this. To them changing the labeling would be misleading and weaken USDA standards.
Organic wine farmers and supporters of the labeling change have been fighting this cause for years. A petition for the change has finally been approved and will be reviewed by the National Organic Standards Board this April at it’s upcoming meeting. Even if this is approved those on the side of the cause still have a long road ahead of them.
While both sides have strong points, it’s ultimately up to us to be educated consumers. If you support organic farming help spread the word about wine labeling. “Made with organic grapes” means every single grape used is 100% organic, no exceptions.