An organic debate

Winemakers uncork the good and bad of sulfites—and whether the preservatives belong in certified-organic wines

Matthew Parker, general manager at 58 Degrees and Holding Company in Midtown, argues that “good farming is good farming” and that, organic or not, all that matters is the wine that ends up in the bottle.

Matthew Parker, general manager at 58 Degrees and Holding Company in Midtown, argues that “good farming is good farming” and that, organic or not, all that matters is the wine that ends up in the bottle.

Photo By Ryan Donahue

At Midtown wine shop 58 Degrees and Holding Company, general manager and buyer Matthew Parker gives little credibility to companies that print organic claims on their bottles.

“It seems so gimmicky,” said Parker, who keeps just one or two organic wines in a selection of more than 400. “Good farming is good farming, whether you’re certified organic or not, and the wine in the bottle is what matters at the end of the day, not a stamp.”

Yet the United States Department of Agriculture organic stamp, a green seal that signifies both organic grapes and also no added sulfur dioxide, or sulfites, in the bottle, now lies at the heart of a battle between American winemakers. Currently, only about a dozen wineries in the world can legally use the USDA organic stamp. But a formal request from a group of California winemakers and marketers, which is currently under review by the National Organic Standards Board, could change this.

The petition, filed on April 1, 2010, by Paul Dolan Vineyards; Barra of Mendocino; and Organic Vintners, a Denver distributor, requests that the government modify the language in its organic-winemaking rules to allow wines made entirely with organic grapes, yet containing up to 100 parts per million of added sulfites as a preservative, to be sold as USDA organic. Currently such wines can only be labeled “made with organic grapes.”

Phil LaRocca wants to keep it this way. As owner of LaRocca Vineyards and near Chico, he has been making wines with organic grapes and also without preservatives since the 1980s. “It took me years to master my craft, to make wine without sulfites,” he said, “and now all these other people are going to come in and pose as organic.”

LaRocca believes he will suffer financially as wines newly branded as “organic” draw away part of his consumer base.

But petitioners argue that two conflicting federal laws regarding sulfites in organic wine created their woes. In fact, the Federal Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 specifically allows the preservative in organic wines. However, a clause of legal language deep within the National Organic Program’s website states that winemakers who use sulfites in otherwise organic wines cannot use the organic seal and may only reside, at best, in the “made with” category.

Paolo Bonetti, president of Organic Vintners, deals entirely in wines made with 100 percent organically farmed grapes. “Yet none of my wines are USDA organic,” said Bonetti. Because his wines all carry some added sulfites, the highest claim they can legally make is “made with organic grapes.” And Bonetti feels his wines lose credibility among many shoppers who look for the USDA seal when buying organic foods.

He points out that wines containing as much as 30 percent nonorganic grapes can legally print “made with organic grapes” on their bottles, and he believes the wines he markets—which use the same label—are suffering by association with what he calls “70-30 organic wines.”

Though Parker at 58 Degrees and Holding disapproves of stamps and seals in general as distractions from the wines themselves, he concedes that if the USDA organic category allows winemakers to use sulfites, their wines will generally be better.

Organic wines that use sulfites cannot use the USDA stamp and instead must be labeled “made with organic grapes.”

Photo By Ryan Donahue

“You can tie your hands by getting certified and then never use sulfites, but you’re going to make some bad wines that way,” he said. “The addition of sulfites is something you just need to do sometimes, and if you keep that as an option, it can save you a bad year.”

But many consumers look for wines without any added sulfites, and a change in the current labeling laws of organic wines could dupe such shoppers, says Tony Norskog, assistant winemaker at Orleans Hill Winery in Nevada City. Like LaRocca, Norskog makes organic wines without adding sulfites and has conducted a survey of his customers via his website: He asked “Why do you buy our wines?” and 20 percent of the 1,400 responders have selected the reply “To support organic agriculture” while 80 percent have answered “Because they are made without preservatives.”

Norskog doesn’t believe that even an influx of thousands of wines containing added sulfites into the USDA organic category will have a significant effect on sales of his wines, which include Our Daily Red and a Trader Joe’s exclusive brand called Well Red.

“Most customers buy my wine because they want the no sulfites,” he said. “They’ll just have to read the labels a little more carefully.”

Sulfites 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 are also manufactured commercially. The United States is one of the only nations in the world to enforce a prohibition on sulfur dioxide in organic winemaking, and Bonetti and Dolan believe the 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.”

Dolan says that by adjusting 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 and demand for organically grown grapes might escalate. Ultimately, California’s environment could benefit.

Norskog sympathizes with this objective.

“I can see how society might benefit from this, by having more organically farmed acres of grapes,” he said. “But it would be a little deceptive to consumers.”

The NOSB will make a final recommendation to the National Organic Program sometime in the next year or two on whether to accept or reject the request of Bonetti, Dolan and Barra. If the petition is rejected, then organically farmed wines will continue to occupy a subpar labeling category, Bonetti says.

“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.”