“All I gotta do is act naturally…”

by Katie Pizzuto on July 7, 2010

in Organic,Regulations,wine shopping

The EU never fails to amuse. Usually, for me, the shot of amusement comes with a chaser of sanctimonious pride at the fact that there’s someone out there even more fucked up than the US when it comes to food/wine regulation, but it’s amusement nonetheless. And besides, pointing the finger at someone else’s incompetence is fun…keeps my mind off our own thorns like ConAgra, PETA and Monsanto.

A couple of weeks ago, the European Union rejected a proposal to create an organic wine category, despite the growing trends in consumer interest in greener living. Organic wine makers have long been clamoring for the ability to label their wines as “organic”, but have only been allowed to state that they are “made from organically grown grapes.” A matter of semantics? Quibbling over minutia? The devil, my friends, is in the details.

That “line in the sand” also happens to be an insufferable pain in the ass if you ask many winemakers…

Here in the US, for example, wines can be labeled with one of four claims: 100% Organic; Organic; Made With Organic Ingredients; and Some Organic Ingredients. The line in the sand for 100% Organic labeling is that the wine can’t contain any added sulfites. It may have naturally occurring sulfites, but the total sulfite level must be less than 20 parts per million. That “line in the sand” also happens to be an insufferable pain in the ass if you ask many winemakers who look at wines without added sulfites as being very unstable in quality, therefore giving the public a negative perception of organic wines in general. Not many winemakers in the US are in fact going at it au naturel—it takes balls to let your wine be an unrefined act of nature. So those who are using completely organically grown grapes but want to use small amounts of sulfites to protect their wines can’t claim to be 100% Organic.

On the other side of the pond, the rejected proposal for an organic wine category looked for a lower limit on sulfites (I can’t seem to find a number for their proposed limit), fewer permitted additives, and banning five winemaking techniques such as the spinning cone, which removes alcohol from wine. But despite several months of discussion, negotiators killed any chance of compromise because they couldn’t agree on a limit for sulfites. In the end, it left wine as something of an anomaly in terms of organic regulation.

But if we’re being completely honest, let’s at least put on the table the idea that many winemakers are simply looking at the ability to label their wines as “organic” as an opportunity to join the bandwagon of green marketing. For decades, those that looked at organic methodology as a personal preference didn’t give a shit to advertise it. They did it because they wanted to, not because they thought it might increase revenue. Now, those driven by a desire to satisfy a trend are finding themselves in a sort of Catch-22, because some consumers look at “organic wine” as weird, unstable messes, and others look at it as an absolute mark of superior quality—both inaccurate and accurate depending on what you’re drinking.

Organic wine is accumulating enough attention that it’s in danger of becoming “trendy.” These days, finding a wine bar in any major city that purports to dedicate itself to organic/natural wines is as easy as finding a guido in Jersey. And while that serves to bring attention to these eco-conscious winemakers, it also ends up creating a circle of hipsters that think organic is, by default, better. Unfortunately, consumer education isn’t high on anyone’s list, thus I’m pretty sure it doesn’t matter that the US has 4 different labeling options…in the end, the consumer will only read the word “organic” and make an uninformed decision (for better or worse) based solely on that. EU consumers don’t really have a lot of clarity to look forward to if we’re basing their future on our present.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Linsey July 7, 2010

Tip of the bloody iceberg Katie … the EU has Europe so damn screwed up with measures, standards, sizes etc bleeding etc that most of the UK is thoroughly sick of the control they have over food and drink generally.

The latest is this report from a news paper on new rules
“Shoppers could soon have to buy eggs by weight instead of by number under proposed EU regulations.
It would be illegal to sell any food by number of items. So four-packs of apples and six-packs of bread rolls would also be banned. Only the weight could be specified on packaging.”

They just dont seem to be able to keep their interferring noses out of anything. Completely and totally tiresome, and probably responsible for fruit and veg being flown in from halfway across the planet to a country where they can be easily grown in good quality and number.

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2 Katie Pizzuto July 7, 2010

As often happens in life, “too many cooks spoil the broth” I guess.

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3 David J July 7, 2010

This reads a little strange to me, as Alberto Cecchin in Mendoza had mentioned regulations were clearer & made it technically easier for him to export to Europe than to the US– have things changed (-that much?) in the last two years??

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4 Katie Pizzuto July 7, 2010

Not sure where regulations stand on imports as this mostly pertains to wines produced within the EU, but to be honest, as it stands right now I’d imagine that technically it IS easier to export to Europe because of its lack of standards and definitions for what is/isn’t “organic wine”. Given that the US has 4 areas a wine can fall into, that makes things a little more complicated, but again, this pertains to domestically made wines, not imports…not at all sure what legislation has to say about those.

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5 Don July 8, 2010

I think that “Organic” is a bunch of hooey. I know that perhaps in Jersey where you have Mobsters dumping toxic waste down neighborhood sewers it might be a little more meaningful, but most of the fruit and vege things we get are grown in our local orchards, and I know they aren’t “Organic” but they are good, and safe, and full of the healthy stuff they are supposed to have. I think Organic can sometimes just be another word for expensive. Color me jaded.

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6 Katie Pizzuto July 9, 2010

I can’t agree that it’s hooey, Don, cuz i will always take produce that hasn’t been covered in pesticides, herbicides and fungicides over the “norm” though if you are buying locally you are probably somewhat better off. The other issue is that produce is nowhere near as nutritious as it once was because the soil has been damaged and depleted so much. That being said, a lot of folks are hungry to jump on the organic bandwagon just to make money not to improve (or try to improve) quality.

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7 The Wine Commonsewer July 9, 2010

Good post, Katie. Lindsey is right and worse, it is the tip of the iceberg. France’s wine regulations are stifling and are, in part, why France is finding it more and more difficult to compete in the world market.

My experience with organic wines mirrors your post, some are bad, some just ok, others are a little better. None are stunning.

I don’t think organic is necessarily hooey but there is a lot of it hype connected to the term. There is nothing wrong with a judicious application of enhancements when called for. In my case, the best pesticide I’ve found is a pile of cats. Without the cats we’d not have an orange, apricot, or a single veggie or flower. The vermin around here can devour green stuff faster than you can say ORGANIC. In addition, I use Deadline to kill snails in my flower beds. It is the only way those bastards can be controlled. Although nothing organic leaves my property (green stuff becomes mulch, compost, or firewood) I am not against a little Miracle Grow applied here and there. Then again, my soil is pretty sterile (mostly decomposed granite).

IMO, the BATF should get out of the wine labeling business altogether. I’d much rather see an organization like Underwriters Labs certify wine as organic. It is a lot harder to game the system that way and conversely there is less likelihood of capriciously applied rules. For those who don’t know, UL existed long before government regulation and arose out of consumer demand for safe electric appliances.

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8 Katie Pizzuto July 9, 2010

“The best pesticide I’ve found is a pile of cats” is certainly part of organic thought….use nature to take care of nature, but I understand your judicious use of chemicals. In the end, it’s all a personal choice. And I couldn’t agree more about the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and FIrearms getting the hell out of wine labeling regulation. I know many a winemaker that see it as a thorn in their side. To be honest, as you mentioned, it should be an independent, non-government organization that handles it, but I’m not sure that will ever come to be.

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9 Don July 9, 2010

For snails and slugs and other assorted gastropods we used to take an old cool whip container or other small plastic container and bury it level with the ground next to whatever was being munched on and put about 2-3 inches of beer in it. They love the beer, fall in and drown. Maybe I’m part gastropod. *crude thought about slime trails* Otherwise bark mulch can help too. They don’t like splinters in their little slimy bodies.

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