A Window into Organic Wines:
The Ugly, the Bad, the Good
Most of us, if given the choice of eating an organic apple or a non-organic apple, will go for the organic without much thought. As the American public has become more conscious of what they consume, “organic”, “preservative- and additive-free”, “non-GMO”, and “local” have all become descriptors we look for when choosing our foods. Are we inclined to choose an organic wine for the same reasons we choose organic produce? It would seem logical that organic wine would be preferable to non-organic wine, as what ends up in a bottle of wine begins with the agricultural act of growing grapes. However, the correlation is not as straight-forward as it first appears.
This blog post will explore the definitions of organic wines as well as the controversies surrounding them. We will touch briefly on the hot topic of sulfites and explore its connection with organics and labeling. The differences between organic, sustainable, and biodynamic will be explained and finally, we will zoom in on Virginia winemaking as it pertains to this topic.
What makes a wine non-organic? The main answer is the use of man-made herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides- but it could also include using synthetic fertilizer, cleaning chemicals, and more. In 2013, a study published by Excell Laboratory, based in France, showed traces of pesticides in French wines. The EU allows for very low numbers to be present (in the range of >1mg/kg of wine). The media raised the alarm with inflammatory headlines, but Excell told Wine Spectator that their main concern was for the interaction of various chemicals and how they might affect consumers accumulatively.
“You’ll consume much more pesticide residue eating apples and strawberries than drinking wine,” said Pascal Chatonnet, Ph.D., owner of Excell laboratory …”Your liver will be completely destroyed long before you’ll have toxicity from pesticide residue in wine.”
The main threat synthetic chemicals pose is to vineyard workers and to the environment. Bee and bird populations are threatened by heavy chemical use, winds carry residue into the general population, and run-off enters water systems with various consequences, including threatening the salmon population in the Northwestern United States. These are all reasons to make conscious decisions about the wine you purchase and consume.
Considering the implications of “The Ugly”, the natural conclusion would be to choose organic wines whenever possible. To help you navigate this category, let’s examine the various definitions of “organic” wine. Organic agriculture does not necessarily mean no pesticides, herbicides, etc. are used—it just dictates the origin of chemicals. Copper and sulfur are both common in organic farming. However, there is no regulation on the quantity used, and sometimes, more copper must the sprayed to achieve the same result as its synthetic counterpart. As with synthetic chemicals, copper sulfate has an environmental impact, especially when used in excess.
As well, definitions of “organic” vary country-to-country. All wine producing countries have different certifying bodies and different standards of organic certification. Most countries allow for added sulfites in organic wines but in the United States, to use the phrase “organic wine” and to display the USDA organic logo, a wine must contain no more than 10 parts per million (ppm) of sulfite, which is a natural byproduct of the wine-making process. Most winemakers add sulfites to preserve and stabilize their wine. Non-organic wines are allowed up to 350 ppm, but most will average about 100 ppm. Even a wine made with organic grapes may contain 80 ppm, and cannot be labeled as organic because it’s breached the USDA threshold.
There is a large controversy over the sulfite rule as it stands, even on the organic side, where winemakers and wine enthusiasts alike point out that the strict rules act as a disincentive to viticulturists who might otherwise use organic practices. Winemakers add, it is risky, too risky for many of them, to put a wine on the shelf that does not contain added sulfites, as the quality of wine they intended the consumer to receive cannot be guaranteed.
There is a largely-held consumer belief that sulfites cause headaches. Professor Andrew Waterhouse of UC Davis is largely the recognized authority on the sulfite issue. On his website, which has an excellent summary expressed in layman terms, he points out that there have been no medical studies that show a connection between sulfites and headaches. If you get headaches from a single glass of wine, it is more likely that histamines or tannins are to blame. Professor Waterhouse recommends you test this by eating a handful of orange-colored dried apricots, which contain more sulfites than a glass of wine. If you don’t suffer from a headache, sulfites are not the culprit!
Why must labels on wines sold in the US display the disclaimer “Contains Sulfites”? There are people who are allergic to bisulfites and suffer skin rashes and respiratory distress. In the late ‘70s and ‘80s, sulfites were used more indiscriminately, including in the vineyard. This fact, combined with the regulatory and label-happy politics of the era, resulted in the standards we observe today. Although much commercial produce is sprayed with higher levels of sulfites than a glass of wine, viticulture was singled out to carry the “warning” on the label.
Becoming USDA certified remains financially prohibitive for many producers, particularly smaller operations. Typically, there is an application fee, annual renewal fee, assessment on annual production or sales, and inspection fees. Yet, these small producers are likely your best bet for a delicious, conscientiously crafted bottle of wine, which brings us to…
There are an increasing number of USDA certified organic wines available in the marketplace, but if you like to shop for a variety of wines and care about supporting smaller producers, shop at wine specialty stores (like Locke Store!) and avoid wines from the grocery store. While it may not be true for all wines on your grocer’s shelves, generally speaking, in order for a wine to make it on to those shelves a certain (read: large) quantity has to be available. To make large quantities of wine, large plots of vineyards must be tended. These plots can’t be managed with the same precision as smaller plots so when fungicides, herbicides, etc. are used, the entire crop gets sprayed whether it is needed or not. Small producers and family-owned operations are in the vineyard often, tending the vines- and if problems arise, they can use countermeasures judiciously, whether they be organic or not, to minimize consequential impact.
Other than USDA organic, there are other certifying bodies that you can look for. California has Sustainable in Practice (SIP) certification, the Northwest has Salmon Safe, France has Agriculture Biologique, and so on. You may also find “made with organic grapes” on labels. This can be found on wines that are produced with organic grapes, but contain more sulfites than the 10ppm allowed to use the term “organic wine”- or on those who have chosen not to get certified by the USDA. These wineries that use organic practices, but are not certified, are often called “sustainable”. There are organizations that will certify a winery as “sustainable”, but any winery can use the term, and it can mean anything from “uses organic practices” to having “a low-impact tasting room”. Do your research so you can choose a wine that is in line with your values!
Biodynamic wine is another unregulated category that takes organic to new heights by including an entire ecosystem in and around the vineyards. Biodynamic wineries usually keep livestock for natural vegetation and pest control as well as a source of fertilizer. They encourage beneficial insect populations to live in and among the vineyard by allowing certain weeds to grow or by providing insect houses. Some biodynamic producers even use the lunar calendar to dictate when to plant, prune, and harvest grapes. Demeter is an internationally recognized certifying body of biodynamic wines, but again, there are biodynamic producers that are not certified and their wines can be pointed out by knowledgeable sales staff.
The Question of Virginia Wines
Buying local produce is one way to choose food that is likely to be better for you and for the environment. Does the same hold true for local wine? Jeff White, owner and winemaker at Glen Manor Vineyards in Front Royal, explains some of the challenges of growing wine grapes in Virginia. “Choosing the right location for your vineyard is the most important consideration,” he says. Vineyards with good airflow and drainage will not only help keep fungus from the vines but will also reduce some pests. Even then, there can be micro-climates within the vineyards, so vines in the same block may need different attention at different times. It is more important in this wine-growing state than in many other wine regions to be hands-on and intimate with the vines.
Buying local wines is beneficial for the local economy, and minimizes the carbon footprint of transporting wine from across the country or from other parts of the world. Jeff points out that growing wine grapes has become more difficult over the past decade because globalization has brought new insects from across the globe to vines that do not have a natural resistance to them. He is in the vineyard on a daily basis heading off potential fungal or pest problems before they need chemical treatment. For example, he hand-picks cutworms to avoid having to use pesticides, but will use treatment when necessary. He also points out that in many cases he prefers to use synthetic chemicals over copper because the amount of copper he would have to use would be damaging to the soil, and the run-off could get in the water systems. The synthetic chemicals break down faster, so he considers them more environmentally friendly. “If I wanted to be an organic farmer in Virginia,” he says, “I wouldn’t be growing wine grapes.”
Since totally organic farming is not a viable option for even the best-selected vineyard sites in Virginia given the climate challenges, some wineries are seeking other ways to be as environmentally friendly as possible. For example, North Gate Vineyard just outside of Purcellville has an LEED Gold Certified tasting room and is 100% solar powered to reduce their carbon footprint as much as possible.
We hope you find this information beneficial in explaining the differences between “sustainable”, “organic”, and “biodynamic”, as well as illuminating the controversy over sulfites, the trade-offs and challenges for organically farming vineyards, and how to make the best choices when selecting wines, given what is most important to you. Locke Store’s philosophy is to connect with the community as well as to provide you with gourmet, wholesome, and responsible products. On our wine shelves, this translates to offering our customers delicious and reasonably priced wines from producers we can identify. We believe product knowledge is one of our best tools, and we are happy to share the stories of our wines with you!
If you are interested in further exploration of this topic, the below links can be helpful places to start.
- Professor Waterhouse’s website explaining sulfites:
- Wine Spectator’s article on pesticides in French wine:
- A brief article on Wine Folly looking at organic vs. non-organic:
- Wine professionals weigh in on the topic:
- An organic wine company answers from FAQs:
- Employee Spotlight: Casey Segal-Miller, Front of House Manager & Catering Coordinator
- Let’s recycle right!