If you buy organic milk and produce, doesn’t it make sense to buy organic wine? Not for oenophiles who’ve turned sour grapes after tasting a glass that had oxidized or spoiled—usually due to a lack of added sulfite preservatives, which are prohibited by USDA organic regulations. “Fifteen years after the first organic wines came out, we are still trying to get that bad taste out of people’s mouths,” says Paolo Bonetti, president of Boulder, Colorado–based distributor Organic Vintners. Bonetti and others advocate a shift in USDA organic regulations allowing wines made from 100 percent organic grapes to be marketed as organic. Here’s what to know before buying.

 

  • USDA Certified Organic wines have improved vastly, according to Edward Field of Natural Merchants, a Grants Pass, Oregon–based distributor that introduced the first certified organic Spanish and Italian wines to the U.S. market this year.
  • If you’re not allergic to sulfites, you may be best off choosing wines labeled “made with organic grapes.” These don’t boast the USDA’s green and white seal but do provide the same vibrant, high-quality organic fruit in a more consistent and stable vintage, says Bonetti. (A European study showed wine made with conventional grapes contains pesticide residues.) From an environmental standpoint, organic cultivation methods are naturally better, of course.
  • Your wine may be anonymously organic. Napa Valley’s Hall winery owns six certified organic vineyards but doesn’t include the term on labels because market research shows today’s wine consumers aren’t paying a premium for organic wine. “The industry has done a very good job of confusing our customers,” says Mike Reynolds, Hall president. “You have different producers promoting different things.” (To learn more about a vineyard’s cultivation methods, check its website.)
  • Sustainability matters, too. In California and Oregon, nonprofit groups now certify vineyards and wineries that meet energy, water, and packaging criteria to reduce their carbon footprint. “There has been a lot of interest in sustainability in the wine industry going back ten years—before other agricultural sectors,” says Ann Thrupp, PhD, director of sustainability at Fetzer Vineyards in California.

Wine labels

Organic

Made with organically grown grapes and contains no added sulfites (a small amount appears in wine naturally). Qualifies for the USDA Organic seal.

Made with organic grapes

Made with organically grown grapes but can have added sulfites. Labels may state “made with organic grapes” but can’t display the USDA Organic seal. Tends to be more shelf stable.

Wine trend: Sustainable packaging

The box is back.

Don’t discard the idea of lightweight, aseptic Tetra Pak cartons, which can reduce the environmental impact of your vino. Try: CalNaturale “made with organic grapes” chardonnay

Cork or screw cap?

Gaining momentum in U.S. wine country, the screw cap prevents spoiled or “corked” bottles, the result of 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA)—often derived from pesticides and wood preservatives—in corks. Plus, screw caps help manage sustainability issues linked with the high demand for corks, mostly grown in Spain and Portugal. Traditionalists tend to prefer cork because of its association with fine, authentic vintages. The Central Coast Vineyard Team in Paso Robles, California, recently launched Recork; visit recork.org to find a recycling partner near you.

By the numbers

4: Average number of pesticides found in conventional European wine samples

48 million: Sales in dollars of certified organic and “made with organic grapes” wine in 2003

161 million: Sales in dollars of certified organic and “made with organic grapes” wine in 2009