An Organic Debate – Part II

I was president of the California Certified Organic Farmers for 7 years, the oldest and largest certifying body, and helped formulate the original USDA rules for organic. I wasn’t a proponent of the USDA taking over organic standards. As an organic farmer from the 70s, we never had a lot of cooperation from the government. Later, we had to go along with the consensus. And when we were making the wine rule, we had to look at it from the whole perspective, not just wine.

As president of the CCOF, I ran a survey to see who bought organic food. It was mostly women, who were well educated with a good income. They were happy to pay an additional 30%, but if they were paying it, it had better be organic. So if you were lenient on this rule then anyone who was making any food could say “I just want to add this one preservative.” After all, organic bread doesn’t last as long. But I would be outraged; as an organic consumer, not just as a farmer.

So the same standard had to be applied to wine. You can’t have anything synthetic and call it organic.

There was no “Made with Organic Grapes” exception in the original law. Sulfur dioxide was outlawed in any form. Then, a hush-hush agreement between California and Kentucky senators created this category. It was piggybacked onto a bill about senior prescriptions.

As it turns out, I think that’s a fair label, and I’m extremely pleased with both categories. I’m not an anti-sulfite person. I make wines without them because in my mission statement we just wanted to be 100% organic. I wish I could put “100% organic” on my label, but I can’t because I use a strain of yeasts from France, and they are not certified. In fact, there are no certified organic yeasts.

Some people are confused by the 95% rule with organic products. It only applies when you can’t find a certified organic source of a natural ingredient you need. For example, you want to make a granola bar with saffron, but no one is growing organic saffron. It does not mean you can use 5% synthetic ingredients. If you can source it, then you have to buy it. You also have to show documentation when you cannot source it.

Organic wine gets a bad wrap; some of the early organic wines weren’t that good. I say there isn’t a person out there who can say every conventional wine they’ve ever had is great. At one time the largest winery, Gallo, had the reputation of making the worst wine. 1 out of every 3 bottles sold was a cheap bottle of Gallo.

When I first tried to make wines without sulfites, I went to UC Davis and others for advice. 99% of the response was “why are you trying to buck the system, you dirty hippy?” The 1% that was sympathetic said they didn’t know how to help me. So I admit, my first wines weren’t perfect. I had to wait a whole year to learn. It wasn’t like beer, where I could make another batch in two weeks. So we stuck with it and learned.

Women used to say they got major headaches from wine. I said “try mine.” That’s what kept us afloat. Now things are different. I’m working with a lab and making something without a preservative. I’m proud of my wines. I did it myself without anyone helping me.

It’s a process of weeding out different mistakes. All my tanks are temperature controlled now. I just won two awards in international competitions. We’re getting there. We’re making a $13 bottle of wine that’s damn good and organic. I respect people who have the “Made with Organic Grapes” label; sometimes I feel we don’t get the respect back. The work we did to set it up and say there is such a thing as an organic wine.

Any wine with sulfites over 10 parts per million naturally still cannot be labeled organic. There was a reason they used 10 parts per million. Under that you don’t have to put a warning. If a warning label has to be put on, then it is not appropriate for organic production. We try to keep our wines at 0 parts per million. People forget the molecular structure of the added sulfite is different. It’s bonded. That’s what might cause people to have allergies.

We have these two laws; and unfortunately, unless the wine is an organic with a USDA label you cant legally call it an organic wine. So have respect for the rule and the terminology. I’ve heard every excuse in the book. “I’m organic. I only use herbicide.” You have players coming in with big money and they can lobby for different things. Fortunately, the organic consumer is like me. They are educated and watching out.

This letter from Phil LaRocca is a response to the letters posted in An Organic Debate – Part I.


5 responses to “An Organic Debate – Part II”

  1. An interesting debate only to be found in the world of wine. In all other food production be it farming to a final consumable organic means no preservatives. If a crop needs chemicals to exist then it shouldn’t be grown there, if a final product like wine needs a chemical to preserve it maybe it shouldn’t exist. The whole debate can be solved by truth in labeling. Full and total disclosure on the label allows the consumer decide what they want to put in their bodies.
    There are many wines made in Europe without SO2. Its not an American issue only but only in America would there be discussions like these.

  2. Barbara Fite Avatar
    Barbara Fite

    The distinction between “Made with Organic Grapes” and “Organic Wine” is a huge one for people who are allergic to sulfites. It’s a necessity for me to know that wines labeled ‘organic’ have no added sulfites, as it is a serious health issue for me to be exposed to high levels of sulfites (as on dried fruit, salad bars, etc.). Some wines have caused health problems for me, so I have learned to drink only those labeled ‘organic’ or those that have no sulfites added. I would have to quit drinking wine (horrors) if I could not trust the “organic wine” label! So THANKS to people like Phil LaRocca who have spent time & effort to develop a truly organic wine!

  3. This article seems to refute the idea that sulfur in wine is only an American obession:

  4. I don’t understand how/why sulfite free is equated with organic. It should be easy enough to label all wines grown with organically grown grapes and processed in an organic winery as organic. Sulfite free should be a separate classification.

  5. And…I wish we could stop arguing about this and get on with the bigger question of the terrible issues happening with the use of synthetic pesticides and herbicides on the vast number of acres of wine grapes being grown in California, Oregon and Washington. I’d like people to focus more on that topic and what can be done to encourage an industry to develop. Consumers need to be able to buy wine that is organically grown and processed and promote the growth of the industry without having to drink sulfite free wine that is made by a handful of wineries. Sulfite free wineries can continue to make their wines and people who prefer to buy their wines would still be free to buy them, so I don’t really understand why Frey and LaRocca are having a problem with this issue.

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