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.