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Ensuring Organic Wine's Lousy Reputation for Years to Come

I'll bet you didn't know there was an anti-sulfur lobby did you? Sure, you thought, there are those winemakers who try to make wines without sulfur, but they're mostly renegades and eccentrics, mad scientist winemakers-cum-philosophers (all, by the way, terms of endearment from my perspective) who spend more time with goats than with human beings. Some of them make great wine, but they'd most certainly never bother with something ugly like the bureaucracy of food policy, right? They're too busy following their personal vision to make transcendent wines. And thank goodness.

That's what I thought, at least, until I got the press release today from a group of winemakers you've never heard of trumpeting their victory in convincing the National Organic Standards Board to deny a petition that the standard for wines labeled as "Organic Wine" be amended to allow those wines to contain small amounts of added sulfites.

It was quite a victory. One that will ensure that organic wine continues to be reviled, avoided, and generally mis-trusted by consumers for many years to come.

America continues to prove that it has more dogma than sense most of the time.

American wine consumers would be happily consuming organic wine in large quantities today if it weren't for the fact that when organic wines hit the market, and ever since, they have generally been lousy. There are, of course, exceptions to this, but by and large, many of the wines that bear the true USDA Organic seal are bad.

Leaving aside winemaking skill, some of these wines taste awful because they are oxidized and, in some cases, downright spoiled. That's because they don't have any added sulfur, which we have been using for literally centuries to preserve wine. This naturally occurring compound has near-magical properties when it comes to making sure that your wine doesn't turn into vinegar before your customer decides to drink it.

There has been an awful lot of experimentation and debate about sulfur in the winemaking community. A whole cadre of winemakers (mostly European) loosely collected under the banner of "natural winemaking" have striven to make wine with as few inputs as possible both in the vineyard and the cellar, often focusing on the elimination of sulfur dioxide use both in the winemaking process and at bottling.

Most have found that eliminating it completely isn't practical, at least all of the time. Frank Cornelissen, the remarkable winemaker from Sicily whose wines I adore, mostly succeeds in eliminating sulfur from his wines, but admits that they have to be stored and transported quite carefully lest they spoil. Julien Guillot, of Domaine de la Vignes du Mayne in the Maconnais region of Burgundy, mostly doesn't have to add any sulfur. But then sometimes he does.

Making wine without sulfur is unbelievably risky, like walking a tightrope without a net. Some people succeed, and do so brilliantly, but many people don't, or can't. So they add sulfur. You don't need much, sometimes just a little squirt of sulfur dioxide gas right at bottling (it gets absorbed and bound up into the wine, inert and without taste).

Leaving aside the claims that these sulfites cause headaches (which has been disproven scientifically), apart from philosophical grounds held by winemakers like Cornelissen and Guillot, there seems no rational reason in the world that anyone concerned with the quality of wine should want to prevent the use of sulfites in the winemaking process.

Yet here we have some people rejoicing that they've managed to turn their personal philosophies into U.S. food policy. Alice Waters could only dream of doing the same thing, bless her heart.

In denying the petition to allow wine labeled as organic to contain sulfites, the NOSB has denied hundreds of wineries the opportunity to label their wines as organic. Of course, given the deservedly horrible reputation that organic wine has with consumers, one would wonder if they would want to.

But now we don't even have the chance to try to change that reputation. Instead the thousands of wines made in this country from organically grown grapes will not be allowed to label themselves as organic. They will simply be able to say "made with organic grapes" somewhere on the label. But again, many of them don't even bother to do that, fearing the stigma that the "o" word has with consumers.

With the huge boom in organic wine growing over the past few years, which makes me extremely happy, I think a lot more winemakers would make organic wines if they were able to do it in a way they felt allowed them to make a high quality wine for their customers. There's a reason that 99.99% of all the winemakers in the world -- from the tiniest most artisan producers, to the big industrial winemakers -- all use a little bit of sulfur in the winemaking process. It generally ensures that the wine we end up drinking tastes better and lasts longer.

As long as USDA certified organic wine can't include any sulfur, its reputation, and its quality, will remain where it is: in the toilet.

Read the full (depressing) story.

Comments (19)

Sondra wrote:
12.09.11 at 8:32 AM

Great article! I fully agree that the organic foodniks should NEVER have their say over wine. People do not know there's a difference between organic wine and wine made with organically grown grapes - both suffer the same reputation for the most part. As you know they are not the same at all. How can we change this travesty?

Alan Baker wrote:
12.09.11 at 8:52 AM

Well put Alder.
I never thought logic would prevail in this debate so we still do not label our wines made with organic grapes as such. We use this information only in the hand-sell scenario. It's a sad thing that growers who do this extra work for their crop, and the environment, cannot begin to reap the rewards in a more material way.

Tony Norskog wrote:
12.09.11 at 9:50 AM

Euro centric, biased, ignorant.
A few descriptors stand out for this article and though the 'anti sulfites' lobby (a loose knit group of producers who paid their own way to south carolina to testify) may have been there partially to secure their niche, the final decision had to be made by the NOSB which considered the slippery slope of 'sulfites in organic wine' would be followed by what? Sodium Benzoate in Organic Salsa?
The pro sulfite group foolishly put forth a very biased and poorly argued request. Their interest was to get the use of the USDA Organic logo on their bottles as the consumer is starting to recognize that across all food types.
What they should have gone for is more of the 'organic with sulfites' and organic without sulfites' to remove the lingering doubts of organic consumers about all the other things used in 'made with' wines.
As a producer of true organic wine since 1989, I can show you examples that have held up for decades (1992 Nevada County organic Zinfandel) low pH, high tannin which locked horns with a similar vintage Gary Farrel Zin in a commercial wine competition for top honors (farrel got it, but hey 300+ wines and finaling in one of two top spots, that's not bad).
That said, my current high pH central valley wines hold up for a couple of years, much longer than the distribution system needs for a value quaffing wine.
It's a good thing bloogers come and go like wine....

Alex Finberg wrote:
12.09.11 at 10:16 AM

The word "organic" means something - look it up. Next, look up how packaged so2 is produced, industrially. This ruling means that growers and winemakers who use so2, however environmentally conscious and beloved by all of us, will not be able exploit this word for marketing purposes. Did you ever consider how many other unlisted chemicals and preservatives make it into the wine we drink every day? The alcohol industry, but particularly the wine industry, has already been given a frightfully long enough leash with regard to deliberately misleading labeling - Truly: Name one other consumable good produced in this country that is exempt from labeling laws. This ruling is a rare victory for industry transparency and that is a good thing. So, instead of worrying about it impeding producers' ability to "brand" themselves, we should be devoting our skepticism and effort to making labels more; not less honest.

Alder Yarrow wrote:
12.09.11 at 10:27 AM


LOL. I never thought I'd ever get tarred with the label "eurocentric." Though lots of people who disagree with me like to throw around words like "biased" and "ignorant" instead of making clear arguments for their case.

I don't buy the slippery slope argument. We can make a law and stick to it, and treating wine like food is not the answer.

I haven't tasted your wines, so I can't comment on them, but clearly low pH levels can prevent microbiological messiness and make for very long lived wines. Unfortunately not everyone in California making wine without sulfur either knows that or can manage it while still getting the ripeness they think they need. The result: flabby wines that spoil very easily. And pH is not the silver bullet for extremely long aging potential, as the folks in Burgundy have found out with their premox problems that many now believe are due to not enough sulfur dioxide.

Good for you Tony, for sticking to your guns and making the kind of wine you want to make. And if it is actually decent wine (what have professional critics said about it? Wine competitions don't count) so much the better.

I've been here for 8 years, and will be for many more. Come back and visit.

Alder Yarrow wrote:
12.09.11 at 10:32 AM


Organic ketchup has vinegar. Organic bacon has salt. Organic olives have brine. Have you seen the industrial salt manufacturing process?

I'm saying S02 should be treated like NaCl in this context.

Having said that, I am ALL FOR complete transparency and explicit labeling when it comes to wine. I'd like every wine to tell me whether it's been fined and filtered, and with what, and whether water was added, or acid added, or all stuff like that.

Alex Finberg wrote:
12.09.11 at 10:57 AM

Well if you hold wine to such a high standard, then perhaps you should start "The most influential ketchup or bacon blog on the internet"! Seriously though, I think you're touching on the core of my point: this ruling is a small victory *against* the awesome lobbying power of the industrial food industry that has whittled away the definition of "organic" in order to sell industrially produced ketchup and bacon. At any rate, have a nice weekend and congratulations on successfully luring legions of bored idiots like myself to your blog with this post. Baiting controversy must have a positive impact on your hit counts for the day, and I'm sure the folks at Vibrant Rioja appreciate it!

Todd wrote:
12.09.11 at 10:59 AM

I have participated in and supported the organic movement for over twenty years, and I really do think that wine deserves to have a specified additive exemption for this particular substance, provided that there is proper labeling.
I've learned some important things here:
1) The NOSB maybe does not realize that their wine growing membership, risks having their lunch eaten by certified BioDynamic producers who may use sulphites, and tell a better story.
2) That Tony Norskog does not realize that Alder has been 'blooging' successfully for some time, that I consistently enjoy Alder's product ( I think it is fairly organic ), whereas the "Daily Reds" have not been interesting enough for my return consumption.
3) If we could figure out how to collect naturally occurring sulpur dioxide at the mouth of an active volcano, we may have a business model. I bet SO2 from Mt. Etna would mesh especially well with the super Tuscans.

Tom wrote:
12.09.11 at 12:23 PM

If you're going to get exact with it, how far back down the supply chain do you look? Making stainless steel tanks is an energy-intensive, greenhouse gas-producing, toxic chemical-employing process too, right? These also apply to making concrete tanks.

It's truly a shame that organic standards have been degraded by the food industry. But this is hardly striking a blow for the purity of an organic standard. The goal should be, within reason, to get as many participants as possible, right? And to better protect human health and the environment by doing it. Surely a standard could be set for production of SO2, maybe not from Mt. Etna (very funny, Todd -- are you volunteering to collect it?), but from organic egg whites, maybe?

As for biodynamic certification eating organic's lunch, probably not anytime soon. Demeter USA has a certification mark on using the word biodynamic and you have to pay them off for the privilege of using it in the U.S., even if you have Demeter certification from another country. That's the reason you don't see many foreign-made biodynamic wines on the shelf here -- at least not with the word biodynamic on the label.

Todd wrote:
12.09.11 at 1:55 PM

Tom, OK I was employing a bit of hyperbole, and I do understand the certification requirement. I guess what I mean to say, is that because BioD follow organic processes (aside from the introduction of the 'preparation' angle), and DO allow sulfite addition, the more reliably stable product that emerges may be the one that consumers gravitate to. It certainly costs something to maintain organic certification as well, and at some point producers may look at that trade off differently.

That said, I'd do just about anything for a trip to Sicily.

Now if you excuse me, I need to go home and rack the malbec, carmenere, and cab sauv...and yes I will be adding a modest dose.

Bill Dyer wrote:
12.10.11 at 12:06 PM

I'm sure it was just a slip up but let's make sure everyone is clear that the lower the pH, the higher (or at least stronger) the acidity. Microbial spoilage is more likely at high pH, less likely at low pH. People often get confused because pH is expressed as an inverse (and logarithmic) scale.

Alder Yarrow wrote:
12.10.11 at 1:50 PM


Thanks for pointing out my typo. It has been corrected.


Mel Knox wrote:
12.12.11 at 11:20 AM


1/I have read that in Europe one may use sulfur compounds if the sulfur is mined, not lab developed, and still be organic. Is this true??

2/Who in California is now making wine with organically farmed grapes and does not use SO2, etc., in the winery?? I see a lot of the former.

3/Has anyone noted the parallel between bio dynamics in Burgundy and premox??

A comment: I do a lot of shopping at so called natural food stores. I will say this, organic tomatoes and strawberries actually taste good, don't just look good. And who can resist a pound of organic Zen party mix?? I love those Zen parties! I don't see a big business going on with the sale of organic wines. Indeed, a lot of the wines on offer are not organic at all. The bottles usually have labels designed by people who grew up on communes, but many of those people are ignorant and euro centric.

I know this segment has become very big in England, but anybody think Tescos is going to swallow losses on wine that has oxidised because there was no SO2??

And a question for Tony: do you have problems with people wanting to return wine that may have gone over the hill?? Is this an economic issue??

Thanks to all,


Mel Knox wrote:
12.14.11 at 4:38 PM

No answers here??

Trapan B wrote:
12.15.11 at 12:21 AM

Answer to Mel, and just the first question since i know a little about this topic (btw, i'm a winemaker from Europe, do organically farmed vineyards and yes, use a little of sulfur)
1) That's true, you can use sulfur in wines in Europe and still call em organic and/or biodynamic
2) i really don't know
3) not an expert on this subject in Burgundy, but i can tell from the wines made in this way in my area that theese wines have a tendency to be (over) oxidized since the start of vinification. Some winemakers call this true wines (vini veri), while others mostly call em flawed! I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that a normal process of a grape is from grape to juice to wine to vinegar in not treated with respect! There are almost no wines (good) with no sulfur at all... Even the best biodynamic produces use a small small amount of sulfur to prevent wines normal path to vinegar!
Now, don't get me wrong, i really enjoy a bottle of good biodynamic wine from time to time, especially a good long macerated white malvasia istriana (goes fantastic with cuban cigars) or other white from this area (Istria-Kras-Collio,Brda-Friuli)
Hope this that i wrote made any sense...



Mel Knox wrote:
12.15.11 at 9:32 AM

Thanks, B

As an ageing ex hippie I thoroughly support people who are tyring to make wine w/o pesticides etc and out as few chemicals as possible into the final product.

I agree with others here who fear that Americans who try to follow all the guidelines of organic winemaking will lose out to those who are biodynamic or who make organic wines in Europe.

Yes, wine can be made w/o SO2 but how big is the market for low pH wines?

gabe wrote:
12.15.11 at 7:55 PM

Here in the Willamette Valley, we have a lot of winemakers who are making wine as naturally as possible. Some grow grapes organically or biodynamically, some use wood or concrete fermenters instead of plastic, some avoid yeast nutrients. Everyone uses SO2. It's the way wine is made. If that means the wine isn't organic, that's fine.

The bottom line is that calling something "organic" doesn't mean it is natural, handmade, or anything else. You can only discover that information by learning about the winery. Everything else is semantics.

Trapan B wrote:
12.16.11 at 12:18 AM

I agree Gabe... As always, the truth is always under the cork, no matter what the label says. As for me, i do organic farming beacuse the terroir allows me to, and since i drink a lot of my wine (as other wines too) i try to make the grapes as good/natural i can and then try not to interfere too much in the winery. For me that works, so far so good!

11.15.14 at 9:18 PM

Hi! This is kind of off topic but I need some guidance from an established blog.
Is it very difficult to set up your own blog? I'm not very techincal but I can figure things out pretty fast.
I'm thinking about creating my own but I'm not sure where to
begin. Do you have any points or suggestions? Cheers

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