I’m an earnest cheerleader for organic milk and juice, so why has conventional wine been whizzing by my organic radar?! With vineyards being especially popular candidates for chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides, it struck me that I should look into this slip of my sustainable standards. Should I start limiting my wine drinking to those bottles exclusively wearing an “organic” label?
By the most basic definition, organic wine is made from grapes that have been grown without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. Different countries have different certification criteria, so standards vary.
Just like a lot of smaller produce farms, though, many wineries that practice organic methods choose not to become certified. It can be too restrictive and the extra costs and bureaucracy can be prohibitive. An expert in the industry (my sister, Laura!) told me, “Growers are also weighing in their minds and wondering aloud about sustainability versus organic. If a grower can make one pass per season with a conventional herbicide, what are the carbon, soil compaction, and petroleum fuel trade-offs with several passes per season with an organic method?”
Many grape growers love their vineyards like children, and want to do what is best for the grapes. A lot of them consider official organic certification not as important as managing their vineyards in a sustainable way that respects the grapes and the ecosystem. This means little or no harmful chemicals, resulting in a wine that is healthier to consume than conventional wine. Take Shafer Vineyards in Napa Valley, for example. Shafer makes some of the most highly regarded wine in America, and they use owls, songbirds, hawks and bats in place of insecticides and rodent poisons. They recycle their water, make their own compost and have converted to 100 percent solar power. Sustainable? Absolutely. Certified organic? Nope.
So it’s tricky. Sustainably produced might meet your green criteria, but remember that sustainable doesn’t necessarily preclude the use of chemicals. Since there is no labeling system for sustainability it is up to the consumer to do their homework. Ninety percent of the wine produced in the America is made from grapes grown in California; if you drink California wine you can check this list from the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance of wineries and vineyards who have made a commitment to sustainable winegrowing.
What the Labels Mean
If you are unable to determine if available wines practice sustainability or if you want wine that is guaranteed to have been produced without the use of chemicals, there is a labeling system for organic wines. Here’s what the labels mean:
100 Percent Organic
For a wine to be labeled “100 Percent Organic” and bear the USDA organic seal, it has to be made from 100 percent organically grown grapes and not have any added sulfites. It may have naturally occurring sulfites, but the total sulfite level must be less than 100 parts per million. (More on sulfites below.)
To bear an “Organic” label, the wine must be made from at least 95 percent organically grown grapes, with the remaining 5 percent of ingredients either an agricultural ingredient that is not grown organically or another substance like added yeast. “Organic” wine may also have naturally occurring sulfites, but the total sulfite level must be less than 100 parts per million.
Made with Organic Ingredients, Made with Organic Grapes, Organically Grown
Wines with any of these labels must have at least 70 percent organic ingredients, with the remaining 30 percent of ingredients either an agricultural ingredient that is not grown organically or another substance like added yeast. These wines may contain added sulfites, but the total must still be under 100 parts per million.
Sulfites are a naturally occurring compound found on grapes and other plants, nature’s way of preventing microbial growth. They also have a history of being added to food as a preservative.
The Food and Drug Administration estimates that one out of 100 people is sulfite-sensitive, and that 5 percent of those who have asthma, are also at risk of suffering an adverse reaction to the substance. In 1985, a study found that sulfites are harmless for most people, but pose a hazard of extreme potential severity to asthmatics and others who are sensitive to these preservatives. Based on this report, in 1986 the FDA prohibited the use of sulfites to maintain color and crispness on fruits and vegetables meant to be eaten raw (like salad greens), and required companies to list on product labels sulfiting agents that occur at concentrations of 10 parts per million or higher.
Since sulfites are naturally inherent in grapes, there are no purely sulfite-free wines. In addition to naturally occurring sulfites, winemakers add sulfites to prevent discoloration, bacterial growth and fermentation. Winemakers have been adding sulfites to wine for thousands of years.
The use of added sulfites is a topic of hot debate in the organic winemaking community. Some swear by their use in small quantities to help stabilize the wine, others refuse to use them. If the sulfite content of a wine is less than 10 parts per million the wine does not require a “contains sulfites” label. Wines labeled “100 percent organic” and “organic” cannot contain added sulfites. The next level of labeling “made with organic ingredients” can contain added sulfites, but the level must be below 100 parts per million. Conventional wines typically contain sulfites at a level of 125 to 250 parts per million.
Biodynamic winemaking is fascinating! It follows the teachings of Austrian anthroposophist Rudolph Steiner (1861-1925), and moves beyond the organic philosophy into a realm quite beyond. The principles of biodynamics are based on Steiner’s spiritual philosophy, which includes understanding the ecological, the energetic, and the spiritual in nature. It is holistic and lovely and takes agriculture to a new level, one where even the position of the moon and planets are considered! I thought that biodynamic wines must certainly be very niche, but they are becoming increasingly more main stream. There are nearly 400 vineyards making biodynamic wines; many well-known and prestigious winemakers included. Not all of them are boasting about it, but many say that wine produced from these practices are nothing short of stellar.
Wine Miles: Domestic versus Imported
After all of my research, I wondered about the “food miles” of wine and what role travel plays on the carbon footprint of my wine choices. I turned to the web site of Dr. Vino, and since he did write his Ph.D. dissertation on the political economy of the wine industry in France and the United States, I have to kind of trust him. His extensive study on being a wine consumer in the United States shows: There’s a “green line” that runs down the middle of Ohio. For points to the West of that line, it is more carbon efficient to consume wine trucked from California. To the East of that line, it’s more efficient to consume the same sized bottle of wine from Bordeaux, which has had benefited from the efficiencies of container shipping, followed by a shorter truck trip. To see the map, click here.