Organic Wine Standards: Who’s Attacking Who?

In the past week there have been a spate of tweets and blog postings titled "Organic Wine Standards Under Attack!". While I'm sure all of these tweeters and posters had good intentions, they have inadvertently supported what may be a poorly reasoned strategy by the OCA.

According to OCA's petition "a group made up of foreign and domestic wine producers and distributors seeks to change current established US organic wine standards to allow sulfites to be added to organic wine." The irony is that this mysterious group of "organic bad guys" may in this case be more supportive of long-term consumer health and environmental protection than the OCA.

In case you are new to the issue, organic wine falls into two main categories – with sulfites – and without. Sulfites have been used as a preservative and an essential part of quality wine making since as early as 1487! And yet in the US only wine 'without sulfites' can officially be labeled "Organic Wine". Organic wine made 'with sulfites' is relegated to "made with organic grapes".

And here's the dilemma. Many wines made without sulfur have quality issues. "Wild, sour, pungent, yeasty, rubbery, rancid, raw, grubby, clunky, tough" are descriptive words that have been used to describe them. They may have high "organic" standards but many suffer from low "quality" standards – and quite frankly a lot of people don't like them.

On the other hand quality organic wines made with small amounts of sulfites are rapidly growing in popularity. This kind of organic wine is recognized as being of similar quality to conventional wine, while increasingly excelling in taste, and clearly winning hands down in terms of benefits to consumer and farmer health, and the environment.

The more organic wine (even if it does have sulfur) becomes popular, the more demand there will be for organic grapes — and the more farmers will convert from conventional 'chemical-based' farming to more eco-friendly organic farming methods.

If we as 'concerned citizens' insist that only sulfur free wine can be labeled 'organic', then we jeopardize the reputation and the sales of organic wine as a whole.

If people drink "funky, rubbery" sulfur free wine and hate it, they'll write organic wine off and demand for organic grapes will fall. If people taste incredible, tasty, vibrant wine made with organic grapes, and a hint of sulfur, and they get that they're drinking 'organic wine', then demand for organic farming will continue to increase.

So what's the bigger evil, a tiny drop of sulfur dioxide (and by all means lets keep the levels as low as possible), or poor quality sulfur free wine?

Lets hope that one day soon we'll discover an organic preservative that can be a viable alternative to SO2. And lets hope that sulfur-free wine makers (and by the way there are some great ones) continue to improve their craft. In the meantime, I vote for leveling the playing field by labeling wine "Organic Wine – made without sulfites" and "Organic Wine – contains sulfites" or as in Europe – nobody is allowed to call their wine 'organic wine' – sulfur or not, its all "made from organic grapes".

When that's done let the market decide what it prefers.