Battle of the bottles

Vintners square off in a debate over organic labeling

Long-time organic winemaker Phil LaRocca has been meeting USDA organic standards for decades by using organic grapes in a sulfite-free process. He’s firmly against an effort by other vintners to loosen the standards.

Long-time organic winemaker Phil LaRocca has been meeting USDA organic standards for decades by using organic grapes in a sulfite-free process. He’s firmly against an effort by other vintners to loosen the standards.


Truly organic: For info about the USDA’s National Organic Program, visit

Forest Ranch winemaker Phil LaRocca wants people to consume healthful wines.

Ukiah winemaker Paul Dolan wants farmers to grow organic grapes.

And now the two veteran vintners are at odds in a battle involving the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) and an industry effort to allow wines made with organic grapes but containing added sulfites to be sold as USDA organic. Currently such wines can be labeled only “made with organic grapes.” Dolan, who owns Paul Dolan Vineyards, makes wines with organic and biodynamic grapes. He also adds sulfur dioxide as a preservative, as do most winemakers in the world.

But LaRocca does not. As the owner of LaRocca Vineyards and Winery, he has made organic wines since the 1980s.

“It took me years to master my craft, to make wine without sulfites, and now all these other people are going to come in and pose as organic,” said LaRocca, who believes he will suffer financially as wines newly branded as organic draw away part of his consumer base.

Among those who would like to see an allowance for sulfited wines in the USDA organic category is Organic Vintners Inc., a Denver-based distributor that deals entirely in wines made with 100 percent organically farmed grapes.

“Yet none of my wines are USDA organic,” said Paolo Bonetti, who founded Organic Vintners in 2001. Because his wines all carry some added sulfites, the highest claim they can legally make is “made with organic grapes.”

Bonetti and Dolan both want in on the USDA organic wine category. On April 1, 2010, they, along with Barra of Mendocino and Redwood Valley Cellars, formally petitioned the National Organic Standards Board, requesting that current organic wine standards be modified to allow wines made entirely with organic grapes yet containing up to 100 parts per million of added sulfites to bear the USDA organic seal.

Most other nations in the world grant full organic status to wines made entirely with organic grapes even if they contain limited amounts of added sulfur dioxide. Bonetti and Dolan believe the U.S. restriction against added sulfites in organic wines has stunted the growth of the organic wine market.

“The organic-foods movement in America is booming,” Bonetti said. “Three or 4 percent of all food sales are organic, but of American wine sales, just 0.2 percent are organic wines. These regulations are severely hampering the development of the organic-wine industry.”

S&S Produce & Natural Foods carries 19 organic wines without added sulfites from three wineries in a selection of more than 100 bottles. At Creekside Cellars, only one or two of the shop’s 500 wines are USDA organic.

Dolan says that by loosening the regulations as requested in the petition to the NOSB, thousands of wines formerly labeled as “made with organic grapes” will be allowed to bear the USDA organic seal. This, he believes, will attract consumers to an abruptly broadened selection of organic wines; sales would increase, as would demand for organically grown grapes. Ultimately, California’s environment would benefit.

Sulfites, or sulfur dioxide, are a common food preservative. Many dried fruits contain sulfites, and most, if not all, conventional wines contain relatively high levels, usually measured in parts per million. But whether sulfites are a synthetic product or not is a debate that lies near the heart of the matter. They do occur naturally—spewing from volcanic vents, for example, and even occurring at low levels in wines as a byproduct of fermentation—but they also are manufactured commercially.

To Paul Frey at Frey Vineyards, the largest maker of USDA organic wines in the world, the issue is a nonissue: “How can you add a synthetic chemical to a wine and call it organic?” Frey asked. He believes such a scenario would mislead consumers.

“People now understand that when it has that USDA stamp it stands for something, that it contains no synthetic allergens,” he said.

Whether sulfur dioxide is an allergen is unclear. The World Health Organization calls it one, while the Food and Drug Administration says sulfites are “generally recognized as safe” for consumption.

But a Quincy man named Doug Swantner says he suffers severe and unpleasant symptoms after consuming sulfites. His diet consists of 95 percent organic foods, he says, and he attributes a range of symptoms he has experienced—like runny nose, stuffed-up head, and bowel discomfort experienced after drinking—to consumption of wines with added sulfites.

Creekside Cellars co-owner Brenda McLaughlin thinks that supposed reactions to sulfites could actually be reactions to other components of wine. If a person was allergic to sulfur dioxide, she says, many or most foods would produce symptoms—not just wine.

But Swantner firmly believes he is allergic to sulfites. To him, the USDA organic stamp on a wine bottle is a guarantee that the wine is safe to drink.

“We already have a labeling system that works,” Swantner said. “If you go into a shop and see a bottle that says ‘made with organic grapes,’ you pretty much know it has some sulfites in it. But if it says ‘organic,’ it means it’s organic top to bottom.”

But in their petition to the NOSB, which will make a final recommendation to the National Organic Program sometime before the close of 2012 on whether to accept or reject the request, Bonetti, Dolan, Barra of Mendocino and Redwood Valley Cellars explain that, until June of 2009, a wine made with up to 30 percent nonorganic grapes blended with 70 percent organic grapes could claim to be “made with organic grapes.”

Bonetti believes the wines he markets—and Dolan the wines he makes—may still be suffering by association.

“When consumers see that ‘made with’ label, they think, ‘This wine doesn’t have the same organic integrity,’ Bonetti said. “So, we want to get out of that ‘made with organic grapes’ category. We want the organic seal.”