Winemakers abandoning organic status for sustainability, improved taste

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Organic wine was quite the rage a few years ago because consumers wanted to “feel good” about buying “sustainable” wines and the industry played off of these feelings. According to “Organic Wine Finds,” an organic online vendor, organic wines:

Taste better—The sorting table is scrutinized for unhealthy grapes and fermentation takes place with natural rather than artificial yeast
Contain fewer or no chemicalsforbidden from using pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers to grow their grapes…unlike conventional wines where the practice is common, organic wines are guaranteed not to contain GMO yeast
Are more socially responsibleWineries that are committed to organic production are also highly concerned with sustainability and ethical treatment of both their land and their workers
Are less prone to vintage variationProponents believe that their grapes have greater natural resistance to inclement weather and disease
Are affordableA small premium to pay for organic wines … is generally no less than the price increase between a mass-produced conventional wine and a higher-quality, smaller production

But a number of winemakers, particularly in France, have dropped their organic status, partly because of regulatory restrictions, but more because of increasing concerns about sustainability and the environment. These decisions by winemakers may be souring the perception that “organic means clean” portrayed by groups promoting organic foods.

In 2009, organic wine sales grew by 3.7 percent, outpacing sales of conventionally harvested wines, which grew by 2 percent. Globally, about 1,500 to 2,000 growers produce organic wine; about 900 of those are from France. Since 2011, however, the number of organic wine growers has leveled off from the dizzying 10-year climb that started in 2000. Some areas, including France, have even started to see drops in organic certifications for wineries.

Let’s take a look at the only objective “reason” for buying organic wines—chemicals. Organic wineries do, as a matter of fact, use pesticides. And those pesticides have recently driven some growers away from using organic methods.

Too much copper for their taste

Domaine de Fondrèche in Mazan, under the French appellation of Côtes de Ventoux, announced that it was withdrawing its organic certification, which it had been growing wines under since 2009. The winery cited copper buildup in its fields, the result of using copper sulfate, one of a number of pesticides allowed by organic certifiers around the world (including the French Ecocert, as well as the USDA’s National Organic Program).

“I believe now that certain synthesized products applied at the right moment may offer better environmental protection than some organic alternatives, but these are all banned by Ecocert,” Sebastien Vincente, proprietor of the winery, told Decanter, a trade magazine. He also said that since conventional pesticides are stronger and more targeted, he wouldn’t be using as much tractor fuel to disseminate the pesticides.

Other wineries may be following suit, but still more French wineries use some so-called organic practices without registering as an official “organic” winery. These practices can include avoiding soil tillage and the use of cover crops and compost, while still using pesticides forbidden by organic certifiers. John Hilliard, who runs Hilliard Bruce, a sustainable winery in Santa Barbara, California, said:

It’s time for organic farmers to come clean with the public and stop repeating the same lies that they don’t use “chemicals” or “pesticides”. The public will sooner or later find out the truth: there are new products on the market that can have have far less environmental impact. And by the way, we all use cover crops and compost, that’s not just an organic practice, that’s just good farming!

Copper use isn’t just affecting soils, it’s also affecting the workers at these farms. An Australian study of vineyard workers found, by testing cheek swabs, copper levels that were 10 times those of controls. While even worker levels were initially low, those levels can accumulate in the body over time and continuous occupational exposure has been associated with interstitial lung disease and a number of cancers, especially of the lung and kidneys.

More than one way to beat fungus

Copper’s main function in a vineyard is to beat back fungus, a persistent problem when growing vines in temperate areas (where, of course, most wine grapes grow). In Europe, copper sulfate has been used as a fungicide for more than a century and was recently incorporated into organic standards of growing. Cross-breeding grapes to combat the fungus has not been very successful—attempts to breed American vines with European ones (many of the current fungal infections owe their origins to the United States) have not produced a variety that resists fungi.

However, other methods might include genetic modifications to resist fungus. Several proteins in barley have been found to resist fungus, and the genes for those proteins could be useful in wines. These include genes for chitinase, an enzyme that targets the chitin found in fungal cells, and genes for enzymes that disrupt fungal metabolism. However, this work is preliminary and some field trials have shown that these varieties succumb to disease just as much as conventional varieties do. But it doesn’t hurt to look. Meanwhile, more varieties are being introduced and cross-bred for disease resistance.

Regardless of the future of the organic certification in the win industry the goal of sustainable quaffing is still in the realm of probability and more than any label, that’s what consumers really want.

Andrew Porterfield is a writer, editor and communications consultant for academic institutions, companies and non-profits in the life sciences. He is based in Camarillo, California. Follow @AMPorterfield on Twitter.

  • Jill Barth

    An incredibly interesting subject, thanks for providing the information in this post.

  • Wackes Seppi

    You will find the most recent statistics here :

    http://www.agencebio.org/sites/default/files/upload/documents/4_Chiffres/BrochureCC/cc2016_france_1.pdf

    In 2014, there were :

    5 088 wine growing estates (+3% over 2013)

    54 700 hectares organic certified (+11%)

    11 526 hectares in conversion to organic) (-25%)

    The statistics are not easy to manipulate and – surprise, surprise – some interesting elements are missing. Some elements are also very surprising, such as a « third-year conversion surface » that exceeds the previous-year’s « second-year conversion surface ».

    Delving into the archives, I found that 14 % of the hectares registered for conversion in « conversion » in 2012 were dropped out in 2014, the last year of conversion.

    The « organic surface » of 2014 should be the sum of the « organic surface » of 2013 and the third-year « conversion surface » of 2013. But the gap – representing the drop-outs from organic and during the third year – reached 4.8 %. In 2013, the figure was 2.7 %.

    How to explain this ? Probably – this is pure guess work – a combination of economic (rôle of incentives) and technical (winegrower’s skills) and climatic (pests and diseases pressure) factors.

  • Global People’s Liberation Arm

    Praise GPLA! Death to global multinationals! Corporate scumbags, we will
    never forget and never forgive you for your hideous behavior!
    Global people of ideologies from across the political spectrum are uniting to outlaw and ban your vile practices which continue to annihilate the environment which we all rely on to survive!

    In other words, prepare to see the meaning of revenge, biotech! You should have heeded our demands decades ago, but now it is too late! Prepare to perish. When the U.S. is invaded the common people will welcome us, because we will be their liberators from corporate slavery. We already have enough weapons. The U.S. government will collapse easily when every other major country on the planet invades it.

    • Kevin Patti

      What.

  • Good4U

    It’s good to see that the original article has now been updated with present day figures. They prove all over again why agriculture in general has moved in the direction that it has, i.e. toward the deployment of increasingly better technologies, away from those that either don’t work or are detrimental to human health and environmental integrity. So-called “organic” practices fit in the latter categories. By the way, the chitinase biotechnical investigations have not all been unsuccessful. They have not been carried to full fruition mostly due to fear mongering by the anti-GMO screamers.