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Organic Wine

Does your wine offer hints of glyphosate and sulfites?

By Jan Walsh

Credit to The International Wine & Food Society


Mankind has been making wine for more than 8,000 years. Yet only in the last 150 years have we made it with chemicals, herbicides, and pesticides. Fortunately, man has not made genetically modified (GMO) wine grapes—yet. But many conventional wine growers use a lot of chemicals, pesticides, and herbicides on and around their vines. And among them is glyphosate, a weed killer, which the World Health Organization named a likely carcinogen in 2016.

Organic Certification

Organic wines are made from organic grapes. But it does not stop there. These grapes are grown in accordance with principles of organic farming, excluding the use of artificial chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, sulfites, and other synthetic additives that are used in conventional wine growing and winemaking. “Organic” wine is produced all over the world, with legal definitions that vary by country. The USDA Organic Certification is the most stringent certification in the world. Thus, many wine drinkers, who strive to (eat and) drink organic, look for the U.S. Certified Organic Label. This label can be found on both American made wines and wines imported into the U.S. Regardless of where a wine is made, for a wine to be sold as certified organic in the U.S. it must meet strict standards, and be free of non-organic, prohibited substances and genetic engineering.

In the U.S. wine undergoes the same requirements of USDA organic certification as other food and beverage products, throughout its lifecycle. Both grape growing and their conversion into wine must be certified because making a wine of organic grapes alone does not make a wine organic. So, don’t confuse wines labeled “made with organic grapes” with certified organic wines. Yeast and other agricultural ingredients in these wines are likely not organic. Among the many different ingredients that can be added to ferment and preserve wine, the most common preservative is sulphur dioxide (sulfites). Sulfites may be added to wines that carry the “made with organic grapes” label—up to 100 parts per million in wines made in the U.S., and considerably more in wines made in other countries.

For a wine to be USDA Certified Organic, the wine must be made using methods that promote ecological balance, conserve biodiversity, protect the environment and the soil. No synthetic fertilizers can be used. All agricultural ingredients, such as yeast, also must be certified organic. Any non-agricultural ingredients must be specifically allowed on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances and can’t exceed five percent of the total product. Although wine naturally produces some sulfur dioxide (sulfites), they can’t be added to organic wine. Certified Organic wines are overseen by the USDA National Organic Program. And the wines must meet the requirements of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, especially for sulfite labeling requirements because U.S. Certified Organic wines cannot contain added sulfites. 

Organic Pioneer 
While researching certified organic wines and their history, all roads lead to California’s LaRocca Vineyards. Philip LaRocca is both a pioneer and a maverick in organics and organic winemaking, who helped define the word “organic” in the U.S. As president of California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), LaRocca was a major influence in the writing of the American Organic Standards and for the National Organic Program. As the organic industry started to grow, CCOF asked California for an organic food and production act. “I was leery about bringing in government agencies, but we needed to set a standard. And I saw that the feds were going to come in and own the word, ‘organic.’ So, I got involved to ensure the integrity of organic standards,” LaRocca recalls. For more than five years, he regularly attended all National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meetings. And he traveled the nation, Canada, Europe, and Asia supporting and representing certified organic agriculture, while advocating international trade and reciprocity for all organic commodities. His dedication and devotion paid off with strong synthetic-free National Organic Standards. 

Glyphosate and GMOs
Today LaRocca and other organic, California farmers are now battling to protect their crops from cross contamination of neighboring non-organic crops. Here glyphosate is used by many conventional farmers to kill weeds growing around their crops, especially GMO crops. GMOs are the source of genetically modified plant and animal based foods, as well as other non-food related products. Genetically Modified Organisms areorganisms whose genetic material (DNA) has been altered by genetic engineering. Genetic modification involves the mutation, insertion, or deletion of genes. Inserted genes usually come from a different species. This creates combinations of plant, animal, bacteria, and viral genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods. The GMO seeds of these crops are engineered to include pesticides so that the plant and its fruit produce its own pesticide in every cell of its DNA. Yet recently and unexpectedly GMO crops are requiring more weed killer than Non-GMO crops because they have become resistant to the weed killers. Run off and drift (blowing in the wind) of these chemicals have ruined various types of organic crops and thereby bankrupted numerous organic farmers.  

Some countries ban or outlaw GMO planting or its imports. Many other countries require labeling of GMOs. Yet the U.S. does not ban GMOs nor require labeling, although polls show that 90+ percent of Americans want to know what is in their food—and agree that the federal government should require labels for genetically modified/bio-engineered (GMO) foods. And more than 70 percent of Americans say they don’t want genetically modified organisms in their food, per a Consumer Reports National Research Center survey. In 2016 an anonymous supporter of the advocacy group, “Moms Across America” had 10 California wines tested for glyphosate. Surprisingly all 10 of the samples tested positive—even organic wines, although their levels were significantly lower. Upon learning this, LaRocca had LaRocca Vineyards wines tested for glyphosate and all were glyphosate free. In November 2016 Sonoma County voters passed Measure M, which made growing genetically modified crops illegal and created the largest ever GMO-free zone in the U.S. A total of 13,734 square miles is GMO-free, as Jumboldt, Marin, Mendocino, Santa Cruz, and Trinity Counties had previously banned the cultivation of GMO. 

Organic Roots 
LaRocca uses no chemicals at all in his wines. This is how his grandfather farmed and is how he farms. His Grandfather Orlando chased government inspectors off his property with a shotgun when told he had to use chemicals on his grapes. The case later went to court but was dropped. Thus, his organic roots grow deep. In the 1970s LaRocca worked a short stint for a conventional apple orchard. But he quit his job when he saw the chemicals being used. “The apples were being toxified to the max. And I bought conventional apple juice again,” LaRocca says. He wanted to grow an organic apple orchard and was met with resistance from academia. Given there was no organic certification at the time, he and other organic growers inspected each other’s farms. “We were the early certifiers and all in it together. And we were even more strict on each other than what is done today,” he says. When the lease expired on his orchard he was forced out of business because the property was being sold. LaRocca quickly sought work at the adjoining property, Paradis Vineyard, on one condition—that they make wine organically. He recalls Vintner Wilson Bruce looking at him and replying, “Then we can’t put sulfites in the wine.” Eventually LaRocca bought this Sierra Foothills’ vineyard and changed the name to LaRocca Vineyards. Thus, LaRocca Vineyards started as and has always been organic, even before the program and certification existed.


Cleanliness, Oxygen, Yeast
Successful organic winemaking does not come easy, which is why many wineries do not attempt it. It took much independent research and many years of trial and error for LaRocca to develop his own formulas and systems. “The three biggest factors are cleanliness, oxygen, and yeast,” LaRocca reveals. “Spoilage comes from bacteria. And we avoid bad bacteria from the beginning of the winemaking process. We super sterilize everything down to every nut and bolt.” While he uses a lot of oxygen in early fermentation, he also explains that oxygen plus heat leads to spoilage. Thus, while LaRocca’s winemaking style encourages much oxygen in the beginning of the winemaking process, oxygen becomes the enemy in the end of the process. And after trying indigenous yeasts, he switched to French yeasts that ferment faster as well as preserve the wine. This French yeast, which has existed for 500 years, is used in lieu of sulfur dioxide in his wines. “Sulfur dioxide bonds with tannins and makes a flavor profile that wine critics define as taste,” LaRocca explains. This preset taste expectation limits rather than evolves one’s palate. Rather than the wine being an expression of the fruit, as true organic wines are, some non-organic winemakers desire instead of a predictable flavor profile that sells. 

Aging Organic Wines
If organic wine is stable and free of bad bacteria going into the bottle, and it is kept at constant cellar temperatures it should age well.  LaRocca Vineyards ages their wines three to four years before releasing them. These releases are timed for economic need not because the wines will spoil if aged longer. The wines continue to age beautifully in the cellar for many years. “We cellar our organic wines off the cork, straight upright rather than on the side of the bottle. Cellar temperature must be consistent for organic wines. The proteins and enzymes are alive and do not like fluctuating temperatures, and considered to be a probiotic.” LaRocca opened and enjoyed one of his 2002 Zinfandels for New Year’s Eve, disproving the notion that organic wines will not age.

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