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Organic Wine – Should We Lower Our Standards with Sulfites?

Organic Wine - Should We Lower Our Standards with Sulfites?

This morning I read a very well-written and interesting piece in the Los Angeles Times about what is going on in the organic wine world. For those who are unfamiliar with the details of organic wine, I wrote a blog post about this a while back. Essentially, naturally-occurring sulfites above a certain number are not […]

Environment Organic Regulation Pesticides USDA Water Wine

This morning I read a very well-written and interesting piece in the Los Angeles Times about what is going on in the organic wine world.

For those who are unfamiliar with the details of organic wine, I wrote a blog post about this a while back. Essentially, naturally-occurring sulfites above a certain number are not allowed in USDA certified organic wine. Added sulfites are not allowed at all.

The Los Angeles Times discussed a movement going on that would allow sulfites to be added. Some organic wine producers want to be able to add sulfites because they think it would encourage more wine producers to grow more grapes organically, without the use of herbicides or pesticides. They also say that sulfites are important, given that wine is regularly shipped around the world and these sulfites are critical to help prevent the wine from going bad.

The Organic Consumers Association and some organic wine producers do not want the standards compromised one iota. They believe that truly organic wine should not have added sulfites. Ever.

My Take: First off, I don’t drink alcohol and am not a consumer of organic wine. Whatever happens will not impact my personal drinking habits one way or the other.

When you have producers, such as Paul Dolan of Mendocino Wine Co., a pioneer in organic grape farming, asking for sulfites to be added, you have to take notice. These are people deeply entrenched in the organic wine industry and have a perspective that the average consumer does not.

Additionally, if I saw research or data from focus groups that showed me that allowing sulfites to be added would encourage winemakers to increase the amount of grapes grown without toxic pesticides or herbicides, then I am all for it.

As my readers know, I am a water fanatic. It is an incredibly precious resource and we need to do whatever we can to reduce pesticide use, since it inevitably ends up in the water supply. As the New York Times recently reported, the quality of our water supply is already a disaster.

According to the Pesticide Action Network, the USDA Pesticide Data Program found 59 pesticides in our water supply, 9 of which are known or probable carcinogens. Furthermore, atrazine, a chemical that is banned in the European Union and linked to a number of serious health effects, has shown up in 94% of all of our drinking water.

My interest is in keeping pesticides out of our food, soil and drinking water. Period. If loosening the standards on organic wine will accomplish this, then I am all for it.


  • Max Goldberg says:

    Hi Jessica,

    Thanks for posting the above. Very interesting.

    Live well,

  • jessica says:

    taken from appellation wine & spirits (amazingly well curated natural wine shop in chelsea) website:

    Common Myths about Sulfites in Wine:

    There is a lot of confusion about the role that sulfites play in wine, as well as the health issues surrounding them. What is true? To help clarify the debate, we have presented 10 common misconceptions about sulfites followed by the real deal.

    Myth #1: It is impossible to make wine without adding sulfites.
    Fact: Although sulfites play an important role in winemaking, by preventing oxidation which can harm the color and flavor of the wine, organic and biodynamic winemakers have devised alternate additives and methods of producing clean, high quality wine with low or no sulfites. Sulfites are are also used to prevent the growth of bacteria and undesirable yeast.

    Myth #2: Sulfites are an “unnatural” chemical addition to wine.
    Fact: Sulfur dioxide is a natural byproduct of fermentation. It is normal to find small amounts of sulfur dioxide in fermented products such as wine or bread.

    Myth #3: I’m allergic to sulfites — I get a headache after drinking red wine.
    Fact: Sulfite exposure is not known to cause headache, unless you are an asthmatic with a particular sensitivity to sulfites. For the 1% of the population that suffers from sulfite allergies, exposure usually prompts an allergic response consisting of a rash and shortness of breath. While no one is exactly sure what causes red wine headaches, it is likely that tannins, histamines or some other naturally occurring substance that is more prevalent in red wine than in white wine is the culprit.

    Myth #4: Red wines have more sulfites than white wines.
    Fact: Sweet white wines tend to have the highest concentration of sulfites. Because sulfites inhibit yeast growth, adding sulfur dioxide to a sweet Loire chenin blanc or a trockenbeerenauslese, for example, is needed to prevent residual sugar from fermenting into alcohol in the bottle.

    Myth #5:Only American wines contain sulfites.
    Fact: The overwhelming majority of winemakers around the world use sulfites—their use is no more common in the U.S. than anywhere else. In fact, the U.S. is much more restrictive about sulfites in organic wine than most other wine-making countries (see Myth #7 below).

    Myth #6: Sulfites are emblematic of modern, industrial winemaking.
    Fact: Sulfites have been used in winemaking since antiquity.

    Myth #7: All organic wines are completely free of sulfites.
    Fact: Because sulfur dioxide is a natural byproduct of fermentation, no wine is 100% sulfite free. In the U.S., the U.S.D.A. forbids producers from adding sulfites to wine labeled “organic,” although the wine may contain as much as 100 parts per million of naturally occurring (that is, not added) sulfites. In Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Latin America, added sulfites are permitted in organic wine. Like the regulatory bodies in these countries, Appellation Wine and Spirits calls wines organic as long as the producer does not use synthetic chemicals in the vineyard.

    Myth #8: You can’t taste or smell sulfites in wine.
    Fact: This is often the case. However, at certain points in the evolution of some wines (e.g., German sweet white wines in their youth) you will be able to detect the tell-tale sulfur aroma of a burning match. However, this smell should disappear as the wine matures or aerates. Sulfur may also be noticeable in carelessly made wines.

    Myth #9: Compared to other beverages/food, wine contains an excessive amount of sulfites.
    Fact: A wide variety of preserved foods contain sulfites. On average, a two-ounce serving of dried apricots will have ten times more sulfites than a glass of wine.

    Myth #10: Sulfites are bad for you.
    Fact: For the vast majority of the population, consuming sulfites in very small doses in food and wine does not pose a health threat. However, sulfites are detrimental to the 1% of the population who are allergic to them and to some asthmatics. Interestingly, the human body produces about 1 gram of sulfites per day (vs. the 10 milligrams of sulfites in the average glass of wine.)

  • Max Goldberg says:

    Hi Paolo,

    Thanks so much for your feedback, and it is nice to have someone inside the wine industry comment here. And agree.

    Something about what you cut and pasted in section 2.5.301 does not seem right. That essentially says that you can call a wine certified organic and STILL have added sulfites. If this were the case, there wouldn’t be the controversy that we have now.

    In my post, I say that only naturally-occurring sulfites are allowed, up to a certain percentage. Added sulfites are not allowed. This is for certified organic wine.

    What you are pointing out (I believe), where sulfites are allowed, is not for certified organic wine. It is for wine that is labeled “Made with Organic Grapes”. A wine that is “Made with Organic Grapes” and a certified organic wine are two different things.

    What readers should take away (something that I did not point out) is that wine “Made with Organic Grapes” may contain sulfites.

    Please advise on what I have written.

    Thanks so much.

    Live well,

  • Very well said, and I am glad you agree.
    However, sulfites are allowed in organic wine production, please take note that the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 and the National Organic Program (see exact wording below*) already allow sulfites in organic winemaking­. Currently, the NOP allows wine labeled “made with organic grapes” to contain up to 30% non-organi­c grapes.

    *OFPA, Sec. 2112 HANDLING
    IN GENERAL-Fo­r a handling operation to be certified under this title, each person on such handling operation shall not, with respect to any agricultur­al product covered by this title
    use any sulfites, except in the production of wine

    NOP Sec. 205.301
    All products labeled as “100 percent organic” or “organic” and all ingredients identified as “organic” in the ingredient statement of any product must not: Contain sulfites, except, that, wine containing added sulfites may be labeled “made with organic grapes”

    National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances
    Sec. 205.605 Nonagricul­tural substances allowed as ingredient­s in or on processed products labeled as “organic” or “made with organic ingredients”
    Synthetics allowed:
    Sulfur dioxide—fo­r use only in wine labeled “made with organic grapes,” provided, that, total sulfite concentrat­ion does not exceed 100 ppm.

    Paolo Mario Bonetti
    Organic Vintners

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