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50 Shades of Organic: "Clean Wine" in Napa and Sonoma

Updated: Jan 21

The topic of organic wine is near and dear to many of us in Wine County. However, this seemingly simple topic (well, is it or isn't it??!) is unfortunately quite nuanced. Due to our complex regulatory structure, our general disconnection from how food is made, and years of misinformation from marketing departments, it feels like there are at least 50 shades of organic wine in the United States. This article will attempt to clear up some of the confusion and help savvy consumers align with wineries that share similar values.


It's important to remember how wine was originally made. Grapes were crushed (perhaps with "clean" feet) and the juice was collected in earthenware jugs. Ceremonies were performed, gods were invoked, and miraculously, weeks later the juice in the jugs would bubble forth with new life. With the aid of naturally occurring yeasts, the sweet juice would naturally turn into a dry alcoholic wine. Human ingenuity would lead to different variations on this process, but this is in essence how wine was made for thousands of years.


The "natural" wine movement draws on this simple tradition and plays with creating a wine that is as unadulterated as possible. In many cases, natural winemakers of today put freshly pressed grape juice directly into modern fermentation vessels and monitor the brew to ensure the fermentation process runs smoothly. The wine that is created is as unique as a fingerprint. There is little certification oversight for "natural" wines, however, and some winemakers do use additives and chemicals. Natural winemakers can use grapes grown with or without pesticide inputs.


The process of modern winemaking is much different. In the attempt to create a more consistent product, winemakers of today are skillfully trained to use chemistry to avoid some of the downsides of natural winemaking and create a product that tastes the same every time. This is not necessarily a bad thing, it's just something to consider while on the hunt for the perfect bottle of wine. The most common chemical interventions are to use sulfur dioxide (SO2) to disinfect the pressed grape juice to kill any naturally occurring bacteria/yeast, and adding sulfites before bottling to stop fermentation. The former is necessary if a winemaker is using a commercial yeast to force the fermentation in a particular direction. The latter is a preservative that improves consistency and shelf life. These both are important manipulations for products entering the global commercial market.


Other common chemical interventions include adding adding sugar to increase alcohol production, adding citric or tartaric acid to increase acidity, adding a concentrated grape juice to improve color and body, adding food and nutrients for optimal yeast growth, using "fining agents" to remove sediment from wine, and adding powdered tannins to improve flavor. Many of these types of additives are highly restricted in places like Europe, but are generally allowed in the United States. All of these additives have the potential to be completely innocuous, but also have the potential to silently introduce something undesirable like a GMO ingredient, non-organic ingredient, food allergen, or a chemical with an unlabeled and unfavorable byproduct.


Now we're ready to discuss the topic of how to know if a wine is organic or made with organic grapes. As mentioned, in the United States there are many different "shades" of organic. Here's some information you can glean from reading a label. For more detailed information visit the experts at Organic Wines Uncorked:


  • Wines labeled "organic wine" are made from 100% certified organic grapes. They are made only with certified organic additives and contain no added sulfites. This is a designation and product type that is unique to the United States.

  • Wines that are labeled on the back of the bottle "ingredients: organic grapes" contain 100% certified organic grapes. The wine can be made with any USDA approved additive. Sulfite levels must be below 350 parts per million.

  • Wines labeled on the front OR back of the bottle with "made with organic grapes" use 100% certified organic grapes and only certified organic additives. Sulfite levels must be less than 100 parts per million.

  • Wines labeled as "made with biodynamic grapes" are made with 100% organic and biodynamic grapes. They must have less than 100 ppm sulfites and use only certified organic additives.

  • Wines labeled as "biodynamic wine" are made with 100% organic and biodynamic grapes. They are made with NO commercial yeasts and NO additives other than egg whites/bentonite. They may have less than 100 ppm sulfites. A unique aspect of certified biodynamic wines is that they are made with zero physical manipulation (no filtration, reverse osmosis, spinning, etc.)

  • Wines labeled as "natural" are typically made with natural fermentation processes (no commercial yeasts) and may contain less winemaking additives. They may be made with commercial (not organic, farmed with pesticides).

  • Wines labeled "certified sustainable" are most likely made with conventionally grown grapes (not organic, farmed with pesticides) and may contain any additives as allowed by the USDA. The farms where the grapes come from are required to perform various self auditing activities to ensure baseline energy, environmental, and financial sustainability. Up until recently, "sustainable" certifications did not require farms to consider pesticide use. However, Napa Green announced fall 2023 that they will be the first sustainable vineyard certifying body that will require farms to reduce and eliminate pesticides like RoundUp/glyphosate in their operations. Check out Napa Green's list of vineyards that are certified herbicide free! Stay tuned for more information on Napa Green certified sustainable wine.



Unfortunately, for those of us who like certainty, most wine labels are completely silent on how a wine was made or how the grapes were grown. Some of this is due to an old stigma that organic wine tastes bad. Silent labels also give a winemaker ultimate flexibility in creating a desirable product and in mixing batches of wine from both organic and non-organic sources. Remember that wine production is a huge commodity market with tanks of fermented grape juice being sold across the state for blending and re-labeling. It's common for even a winemaker to not know if a wine they are blending with is made with organic grapes or not.


Organic certification requirements can also be financially challenging for some farmers and vineyards often choose to forgo the paperwork. It's a well-known fact that many of the best wines are silently made with grapes grown without pesticides. Elite winemakers know that grapes grown without chemical inputs have more complex flavor profiles and taste better. Healthier plants grow more delicious fruit. As of 2023 only 4% of the grapes grown in Sonoma County were "certified" organic (slightly more in Napa) but there is a somewhat larger silent group of grape growers who also manage their vines without synthetic herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides.


The good news is that if you are OK with some uncertainty and excited by the idea of forming a closer relationship with your local winemakers, this complicated situation pose a fantastic opportunity. Think of it as a fascinating plot twist that adds to the romance and intrigue of finding the perfect bottle of wine. It's important to not expect waiters at restaurants and most wine buyers at grocery stores to be able to answer your questions accurately. It's important to visit your local wineries directly, talk to the knowledgable staff in the tasting room, have a conversation with the winemakers. The more people who ask informed questions, the higher standards our local wines will rise to meet.


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Sonoma Wine Shop & La Bodega, Sonoma County, offers a well curated selection of organic wines and wines made with organic grapes. The owners are extremely passionate and knowledgable about organic wines.


Community Market, Sonoma County, offers a large selection of organic & biodynamic wines.


Good Earth Food Stores, Marin County, offers a large selection of organic & biodynamic wines.


List of 47 Sonoma County wineries with at least one estate wine from organic vines: https://organicallysonoma.com/wineries



Resources:


Organically Sonoma/Napa - extremely well researched, independent information on organically grown grapes in Sonoma/Napa Counties.


Organic Wines Uncorked - Fun and playful blog on all things organic wine (worldwide focus)



References:







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