Should Organic Wine Standards Change?

If you're the kind of shopper who looks for the official USDA "organic" seal, there are a couple of things you should know when it comes to buying wine.

The USDA has three organic categories. There's "made with organic ingredients," which applies to products made with at least 70% organic ingredients. Then, there's "100% organic," which would be something like a carrot. Products labeled "organic" must have at least 95% organic ingredients. In the case of wine, there is one little compound that complicates these simple-sounding rules. And that is sulphur, SO2.

The use of sulfur dioxide in wine production dates back many centuries, when it was discovered to prohibit unwanted bacteria from growing the cellar. Nowadays, it's also used in bottling to stabilize and preserve wine for shipping. But not by everyone. There are a small number of winemakers who believe that adding sulphur alters a wine, especially an organic one. These hardcore organic winemakers fought to ensure that organic wine standards would preclude adding sulphur. If you're like me, you may think this is admirable. But it means that only a small number of winemakers using organic grapes can label their wine "organic."

"If wine does have added sulfur dioxide, it can be called 'made with organic grapes.' And this is the crux of the problem," says Paolo Mario Bonetti, president of Organic Vintners, an importer of organic wines which led a petition to change organic wine standards. "99% of the wineries in the world use sulfur dioxide, but when they export it to America or when they sell domestic wine here, they can't call it 'organic' – even if it's made with all organic grapes. They can only call it 'made with organic grapes,' which suggests that the wine is made with only 70% organic grapes. So, consumers don't know the product is actually closer to 100% organic."

In 2009, Canada passed its own organic standards regulations and soon after the US signed an equivalency agreement allowing all products certified organic in Canada to be sold as such in the US. And vice versa with USDA organic products sold in Canada. The agreement applies to all products except wine. A wine sold as "organic" in Canada may have to be sold as "made with organic grapes" in the US. The EU passed its organic regulations last year and the USDA signed the same equivalency agreement with the EU that it has with Canada. Again, wine is the exception to the rule. SO2 is permitted in organic wine production in the 17 countries of the EU. And so these wines from Europe cannot necessarily be sold as organic in the US.

Bonetti's company spent some $50,000 of its own money on the first petition and he's considering raising money to fund it again in five years when the organic standards board installs new members. He believes that with the new EU regulations, he'll have more fodder to prove that relaxing the organic wine standards is better for the industry and for international trade.

"We are now lagging behind our two biggest trade partners in organic wine and our organic wine industry is completely crippled because five or six domestic winemaker zealots are continuously fighting the battle to not allow organic wines to be called organic because of the use of sulfur oxide," says Bonetti.

Surely we can all agree that the standards as they now exist don't allow consumers to truly understand what "organic" really means when it comes to wine. Zealots or not.