At dinner one evening, my dinner companions announced to me with some satisfaction that organic fruits and veggies offer no more nutritional content than conventional fruits and veggies. Proved by science, they said, with authority. End of discussion.
I passed on countering with the fact that organic whole milk has 65% more heart-healthy essential fatty acids than conventional milk. Proved by science.
Actually, I don’t think most people buy organic fruits and veggies because they think they have a higher or better nutritional profile. I know lots of people, though, who prefer organic fruits and veggies because they want to avoid slow poisoning from pesticides. After all, field workers wear hazmat suits when they spray. And then we eat those same pesticide-laden fruits and veggies??
Other people choose organic because studies show that organic methods are better for the environment in the long term. And we appreciate that organic label on fruits and veggies because we know that some produce is more suspect than other produce. The Environmental Working Group provides a Dirty Dozen list each year and a Clean Fifteen. The organic label allows us to make informed choices about when it’s really worthwhile to spend the extra money.
Wine and Organics: Why confusion reigns
With wine, the picture gets more complicated, however. These complications are largely a function of the nature of wine-making and the labels we put on the bottles. Let’s try to unpack some of what you see on those labels.
Standards are different in different countries, and labels that say the same things mean different things. The organic label in Europe allows sulfites. In the U.S., an organic label doesn’t. As a result, there are many fewer organic wineries in the United States than in Europe. Of 1500-2000 organic wineries worldwide, most are in Europe with more than 800 in France.
In addition, a label on a wine purchased in Europe that says organic doesn’t need to list sulfites, so many people think European wines don’t contain them. The same wine in the United States, however, would not get an organic label — and must state that the wine contains sulfites. And then there’s the label that says “Made with organically grown grapes,” which in Europe does not need to list added sulfites and in the U.S. does.
The controversy clearly centers on sulfites, and that is indeed a controversial topic in recent years, although sulfur has been part of the wine-making process since at least the 15th century. Medieval “winemakers were permitted a maximum level of 18.8mg per liter (or 18.8 parts per million)—barely above the 10ppm that requires the label today—by burning a mixture of wood shavings, powdered sulfur, incense and herbs in empty barrels.”
With improved methods of synthesizing derivative forms of sulfur, wine-makers gained better control over their process. With the advent of food-grade sulfiting agents, the food industry gained a preservative they could use in a huge number of food products. When the U.S.F.D.A. approved sulfiting agents as “generally regarded as safe” in 1958, the industry began to use these agents relatively indiscriminately. Wine-makers, long familiar with the amounts useful in the process of wine-making, did not follow the same path.
A graphic presentation from Wine Folly demonstrates that by far, most of the sulfites we take in come from fruits and veggies, in particular dried fruits, and from processed foods.
In addition, sulfites, particularly the relatively very small amount used in most wines, are likely to be a problem only for severe asthmatics, a tiny percentage of the population: “Of the estimated 22 million Americans who have asthma, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 20% have severe asthma. Of that subgroup, about 5%—or 220,000 Americans—are sulfite sensitive.” The labels are directed to this group of Americans.
What do sulfites do for the wine? Sprayed on the grapes, sulfites prevent wild yeasts and spoilage bacteria from causing the grapes to deteriorate, making them unuseable for wine. In addition, sulfites can help control undesirable organisms during fermentation. Indeed, “It’s nearly impossible to find wines with absolutely no sulfites, because yeasts naturally produce SO2 during fermentation.”
As a result of better technology and more sanitary conditions, wine-makers today can make wines with fewer sulfites. With the complexity around labeling requirements, though, and the knowledge that the tiny amounts of sulfites they might use to stabilize wine and prevent deterioration are safe for all but a very few people, most wineries are likely to opt for “sustainably produced” rather than “organic.” Many, if not most, wines with the Sustainably Produced label use organically grown grapes. They are not labelled “organic” in the U.S., however, because they contain added sulfites.
What the labels mean
Wikipedia provides these definitions:
“Organic wine is wine made from grapes grown in accordance with principles of organic farming, which typically excludes the use of artificial chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides…”
“The legal definition of organic wine varies from country to country. . . The primary difference in the way that organic wine is defined relates to the use (or non use) of preservatives during the wine-making process.”
That last sentence refers to sulfites. A wine that uses added sulfites cannot be labeled “organic” in the United States.
“Sustainable wine making is a systems perspective of integration of the natural and human resources, involving environmental health, economic profitability, and social and economic equity. It requires small, realistic, and measurable steps as defined in the Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Practices Workbook published by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA).”
Green Box Boutique Wines
Although we offer some organic wines, notably the Spanish Dragora, at Green Box Boutique, our focus is on bringing you the best wines from sustainably farmed grapes. We carry these labels:
- Vina Ventisquero, Chile – Pinot Noir
- Yelcho from Ventisquero, Chile – Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon
- Dos Minas Torrontes
- Bibbiano Chianti Classico
- Nardone Aglianico Doc
- Botalcura Syrah Malbec
- Botalcura Crazy Quail Cabernet
- Botalcura Crazy Quail Sauvignon Blanc
- Vidigal Vinho Reserva 2011
- Barao De Vilar Tawny Port
- Domaine De Tholomies Cabernet Merlot 2013
- Briseo Malbec Reserva
- Santerro Moscato and Mango
- Santero Moscato and Peach
- Santero Moscato and Coconut
- Dragora Organic Chardonnay 2013
- Dragora Organic Merlot Spain 2013
- Santero Fragolino
And from Wild Blossom Meadery & Winery in Chicago, we offer a delightful assortment of Meads. Wild Blossom describes its product this way:
“Mead is an alcoholic beverage made by fermenting honey with yeast. Mead is not a beer, wine, or spirit in the normal sense; it is its own class of alcohol, and it is believed to be the oldest alcoholic beverage. Mead has held a pivotal place in many cultures throughout its nearly 8,000 year history, and it is still enjoyed throughout the world.
“Its roots trace back to earthen vessels discovered in modern-day China which contained ingredients for fermenting mead. But perhaps mead is best known within the context of the ‘mead hall,’ where warriors such as the legendary Beowulf boasted of their deeds over a cup of it.
“Today, mead is a small niche of the craft beer and wine market. As far as local producers go of this wine made from honey, Wild Blossom Meadery & Winery is the only producer of mead on the Northern Illinois Wine Trail.”
The moral of this story: unless you are one of the small number of severe asthmatics, you will probably serve yourself better if you focus on eating organic fruits and veggies, at least for the Dirty Dozen, and avoiding processed foods.
For your wines, look for something delicious, Sustainably Produced. Invite a friend or two, and enjoy beautiful moments together, sharing your very special wine. Take pleasure and satisfaction knowing it was made from grapes harvested with care and finely crafted into a timelessly delicious wine.