Organic wine is in, minus the tomato

The word “organic” no longer conjures images of a horribly disfigured and puzzlingly expensive tomato at the end of the produce section. All things natural are now in, and no product is riding the green wave more successfully than wine.

As organic wines and the like claim more shelf space, keeping up with their nuanced labels can be daunting. The main ingredient in the confusion is sulfites. Sulfites are a naturally occurring byproduct of fermentation and are inherent to all wines. Centuries ago, winemakers discovered that concentrated amounts had a preservative and antioxidant effect, neutralizing bacteria responsible for the sad but inevitable transformation from wine to vinegar. Sulfur dioxide is also commonly used in winery sanitation.

Since bleach cannot be used, for good and obvious reasons, a mixture of sulfur dioxide and citric acid is an effective sanitation agent for hoses and tanks and other equipment.

Does this sound familiar? “I can’t drink wine — the sulfites give me a headache.” A small segment of the population suffers from a legitimate sensitivity to sulfites, yet sulfites are often blamed in place of the more likely causes of a wine hangover — residual sugars and overindulgence. In 1990 Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act, which states that no organic food may be produced or handled with any synthetic chemicals. As a result, the wine industry was forced to carefully practice truth in labeling.

Once burdensome regulatory requirements, the myriad labels are now valuable advertising tools in a market where consumers are drawn to, and willing to pay more for, any product with an eco-friendly image.

So what do those labels mean? “No Added Sulfites” means the winery did not add sulfites to the wine but that there might be some naturally occurring sulfites in it. For a wine to don the official USDA “Organic” seal, it has to be made from organically grown grapes (at least 95 percent of the grapes were never sprayed with pesticides or synthetic fertilizers) and it cannot contain added sulfites. Any naturally occurring sulfites are limited to less than 20 parts per million. That’s approximately equivalent to a vial of Visine in a 55-gallon tank. Wines that have a “Made with Organically Grown Grapes” label must be made from organic grapes but can include added sulfites.

It is important to note that laws and labels apply only to domestic wines. Generally speaking, the global winemaking community, particularly French winemakers, is less fastidious. For example, European laws apply only to organic practices in the vineyard and not the winery where the grapes are processed or fermented.

One of the world’s most environmentally sustainable winemaking operations is located in the Russian River benchlands of Mendocino County, Calif. Bonterra Vineyards practices biodynamic farming — a process that fosters natural pest and predator balance and innovative growing techniques rather than using artificial fertilizers and synthetic chemicals. Birdhouses are strategically placed to attract bluebirds and swallows, which consume unwanted insects. Free-range chickens roam the vineyard to feed on pests harmful to the vines, while nectar-rich plants are used to attract insects that are beneficial.

Bonterra has a unique and intimate connection with Capitol Hill. The vineyard purchases grapes from Congressional Wine Caucus Chairman Rep. Mike Thompson’s (D-Calif.) Adobe Creek vineyard in Lake County to make its blended Sauvignon Blanc. “From biodynamic farming to carbon-neutral wineries, the wine community has consistently been ahead of the curve when it comes to protecting our environment,” says Thompson.

There is a saying that some wines are made in the vineyard and some are made in the winery. Due to Thompson’s considerable grape-growing prowess, this wine is an expression of the former process. The 2007 Bonterra Sauvignon Blanc ($13, made with organically grown grapes) offers layers of grapefruit and melon flavors under aromas of lemongrass and kiwi. It finishes clean, refreshing and pure.

The next time you’re looking for a lazy way to alleviate your green guilt, do well by drinking well. Just don’t forget to recycle the bottle.

Derek M. LaVallee is vice president, U.S. Public Affairs Practice at Waggener Edstrom Worldwide and a certified wine buff. He can be reached at