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Here’s why more wine isn’t ‘organic’

on 07/01/11 at 11:15 am


Sulfites are forbidden in organic products by the USDA, but most winemakers consider the preservative crucial in winemaking, so few wineries want the label.

This sounds familiar: a national consumer group is fighting to maintain organic standards against industry people who want to weaken them. But when it comes to “organic wine,” the well-meaning consumers may actually be discouraging more organic farming.

That’s because of a quirk in the labeling laws. Currently for a wine to be labeled ” USDA Organic” — a coveted seal of approval for most foods — it must have no added sulfites. However, most winemakers feel that sulfites are crucial in winemaking — they discourage spoilage and preserve fresh fruit flavors. Unlike most organic products, wine may sit for years before being opened. Furthermore, most wines contain some level of sulfites anyway since they are a naturally occurring byproduct of fermentation.

As a result, even though organic food is one of the fastest-growing categories in the supermarket, “organic wine” is an afterthought. No large producers make it. Other types of eco-friendly wine have stepped in to fill the breach, including biodynamic, sustainable and “natural wine,” which may have weak or even no official standards. Wine drinkers looking for a healthful, green product face confusing choices, and wineries can claim they’re eco-friendly without anyone really checking.

Because of that, some leading environmentalists in the wine industry — including Paul Dolan of Mendocino Wine Co., a pioneer in organic grape farming — are asking the government to allow sulfites to be added to wines labeled organic. Dolan thinks that change would encourage more grape growers to be certified organic, meaning the use of fewer herbicides and pesticides in vineyards.

“If you want to make a difference in the organic growing of wine grapes, you need to allow sulfites,” said Dolan, one of the filers of a petition under consideration now.

But that petition has roused the Minnesota-based Organic Consumers Assn., which has persuaded thousands of supporters to write letters to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program opposing it.

{Full story via LA Times}

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