David’s article as prepared for the Duluth News Tribune for the column which ran on 5/25/2016:
Wine is a man-made beverage that has been produced and consumed for more than 7,000 years. At its core, wine is simple and easy to make. The recipe is: grow grapes, harvest grapes, smash grapes in a container, leave to ferment, filter chunky bits and drink.
Grapes are vines that grow willingly in their preferred climate. Picking the grapes is easy, smashing can be done simply, and the dust that clings to each individual grape contains yeasts. If given a slightly warm place to work, the yeasts willingly convert the sugary juice into wine. For thousands of years, this is how wine was made, and we would consider it natural — some would call it “organic.”
But the word “organic” is much more nuanced. It doesn’t mean completely unadulterated, and it doesn’t mean the recipe above was followed exactly. “Organic” means the recipe was mostly followed or as closely followed as can be when winemakers are trying to make a consumer product.
This is an important distinction because it wasn’t until the Green Revolution — which was a set of 20th century agrarian technological improvements that increased crop yields and relied on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicide — that the word “organic” was made necessary as a food production qualifier. “Organic” is now generally used to relay the concept that this product was made in a fashion that does not rely on techniques of the Green Revolution, but rather techniques that are a return to the old recipe or original ways of producing the product.
For the consumer worried about the ingestion of pesticide or herbicide residues in their food, the labeling of organic has been an easy way to sort and source their purchases. This made me think that if wine was always made the same way for the past 6,950 years, shouldn’t all wines using modern, Green Revolution techniques be labeled as inorganic instead of the opposite? The truth is that all wines are made using some form of modern agrarian intervention. It is simplistic and naive to believe that any producer can follow the original recipe. For instance, all wines contain swome form of added sulfites as they have since people first learned that burning a candle in your wine’s storage container before filling helped preserve the wine.
Faced with the realization that winemakers employ a myriad of old and modern techniques, various governmental advisory bodies started to narrow what the word “organic” would mean.
In the United States, hundreds of chemicals can be and are used in nonorganic wine, not just added sulfites. Some winemakers add sugar, oak chips and flavor agents.
On the other hand, wine that is certified organic is allowed to have only about 70 chemicals added to it, including organic and naturally occurring acids, salts and enzymes. But unlike in conventionally produced wine, any chemical used in a certified-organic wine cannot have an adverse effect on the environment or on human health as defined by the Food and Drug Administration.
In Europe, there has been a system for qualifying foodstuffs for many years. In France, it’s called Appellation d’origine contrôlée or AOC. These rules helped solidify EU-wide rules for the use of the term “organic,” which went into effect in 2012. French AOC rules as well as the Italian, Spanish, German and Austrian national systems were deemed strict enough that if a wine qualified for an AOC designation, the producer could also use the term “organic” on their label. Consequently, many of the fine wines imported from Europe for many years have met or exceed the current organic labeling criteria.
Organic wines are certainly made from more carefully sourced fruit than conventional wine, and the term “organic” now has the weight of law behind it. But often winemakers have been employing organic concepts for years without the certification and just because a wine is organic doesn’t mean it will taste good or that the winemaker is competent in their task.
Consequently, the term “organic” when applied to wine has become to be seen by some established producers as a buzz word. The extra layers of bureaucracy required in obtaining the organic certification often make the pursuit cost prohibitive.
This leaves the consumer in a quandary. If one wine is certified-organic and another isn’t, does that mean the organic wine is inherently superior? Unfortunately, no. The only way to consistently purchase good quality, tasty wine is to read, taste, visit and do research on the maker. The one true mechanic that consumers can rely on when purchasing wine is price. Cheap wine will contain more unwanted inorganic additives than more expensive wine. The difference in price is reflected in the care and skill of the winemaker.
Cheap wines use inferior grapes and consequently the winemaker has to fix the wine with additives. More expensive wines will use grapes from a more carefully sourced supplier, and the winemaker will use time honored techniques to produce the wine. These techniques are often simple but labor-intensive and time-consuming such as hand-picking, hand-sorting and cellaring until mature.
A certified-organic wine may or may not be any better than the nonorganic wine at the same price. And while I applaud the move to understanding where our food comes from, you can’t simply attach an organic logo to a bottle and consider it better.
David Devere is a certified specialist of wine. He writes wine articles for the Duluth News Tribune, teaches wine education classes, and leads wine adventures in France. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.