There are two main problems in the world of labeling wine organic.
The first one, which everyone likes to talk about, is those crazy U.S. labeling laws. That's about the government and nothing the government does about wine labeling is casual. So I will leave that topic for another day.
What I really want to address is what I see as the second problem in labeling organically grown wine - the widespread misinformation that is spread by restaurants, retailers and even the wine industry itself. There is just not enough attention to detail and many, many mistakes are made. There is a collective denial about the importance of labeling what is what.
It's not because of the certifiers. They have done their job and the wineries that are certified are free to put certification labels and language on their labels. Many do. Some certified wineries do not (but should).
First - a question. When you go to buy grape juice at the store, do you ask the grocer if it is or organic or not? No. You look at the label to see if it has been certified organic. If the grocer were to tell you the wine is organic, but it doesn't say it on the label, you might be deeply suspicious.
However, transfer that whole situation to the wine world, and you've got an entire chain of information gone totally awry. Wine directors and wine merchants misinform buyers all the time - unwittingly at times, secretly at others, and out of sheer laziness some of the time. Their intentions are muddled. (But yours should not be.)
Wine Directors and Wine Lists
Recently I wrote a post about the labeling issues at Green's Restaurant, where I found wineries that were not only not certified but not even organic mistakenly labeled "organic" on the wine list. (Wine director Mike Hale is calling all his suppliers and revising mistakes). But this brings up a widespread practice - common among wine lists - which is to label organic many wines that are not made from certified fruit.
Wine directors often take it upon themselves to determine when a wine is "organic" - without certification. Even prominent wine bars in SF (like Yield, Pause, for instance) take it upon themselves to assure us that some of the organically grown wines they serve are in fact not certified but organic nonetheless.
What does this do to us the consumer? It puts us in an uncomfortable spot. Because when a wine director tells you that a wine is organically grown, shouldn't they be relying upon a certifier to back up that claim? Or do they have a webcam on every winery that's not certified?
If Joe Wine Director's sales rep or winemaker buddy tells him the grapes are raised organically, that's good enough for him to choose to label it on the list as "organic." This has got to stop - or at least be labeled differently. It should be labeled accurately - i.e. this winery says they are organic but they are not certified. Or "this guy is my buddy and I know he wouldn't lie to me."
People need to make informed choices, and right now, the industry is trying to make our choices for us instead of letting us make them based on the information we need.
Note to Wine Directors: please make a clear distinction in labeling wine organically when a wine is not certified but YOU think it is organic and let us make our own choices. Please label only certified wines "organic."
K&L Wine Merchants: Recently I bought some wine at this very reputable chain, and told the very experienced clerks I would like to buy organically grown only wine. They looked up organic in their database and sold me two wines that were not organic. The sloppiness of databases that are not tracking this in a wine-specific way.
OTHER wines from the same wineries were organic, but the wines they sold me were not estate-only fruit. I have yet to return the bottles.
Another costly loophole.
Visit any winery tasting room, and you'll be greeted by tasting room employees who want you to find what you are looking for. Unfortunately, as I have learned from trial and error, they often cannot be trusted to provide accurate information. Examples:
Campovida - I visited this winery, one of the birthplaces of the organic food movement (when it was owned by the Fetzers), during Hopland Passport last spring and was greeted with a lot of marketing messages about how green they are. I was poured wine that was allegedly organically grown, but in fact it was not. Most of Campovida's wines are not. It took a lot of digging around to find out which wines were actually organically grown.
Parducci - I visited Parducci last spring as well and while all they make Big Claims about their greeniness and raising only organic winegrapes on their estate, none of the wines is in fact organically grown. They blend in nonorganic grapes they purchase from others. So "Sustainable White" is only sustainable if you think pesticides are sustainable.
Demetria - This winery is in a worst-offender category all its own. Demetria flagrantly flouts the law which says that if you want to say you are biodynamic, you must be certified. I bought four cases, under the impression they were biodynamic (Demeter - Demetria - get it?) because they told me they were, only to find out when I got home that they were not certified.
When I tried later on to return the wine, the marketing director said she would not take the wine back despite the false claims. So I spent close to $800 on uncertified wine. It may indeed be biodynamic. But since Demeter has a trademark on the term that requires those using it to be certified, it would behoove Demetria to comply. In the meantime: Buyer beware.
Whole Foods puts organically grown wine, organic wine, and "sustainable" wine all in an Eco-Friendly section. These are generally low-cost wines and it's hard to tell which is which. To further confuse matters, most of the best organically grown wines are mixed in with the regular wines in both the foreign and domestic sections, so you won't find Grgich Hills in the Eco-Friendly section despite the fact that they are among the leading Napa wineries practicing organic viticulture (and their wines are top notch).
Berkeley Bowl, my usual local paragon of virtue, separates organic produce from conventional by putting the two types in entirely different areas so you won't inadvertently pick up some conventionally raised carrots because you weren't paying close enough attention to the labels above the items.
However, when you visit the wine department, the organically grown wines are poorly marked and often mislabeled and the section which contains some of them is mixed in with other wines. The labels may be there but the separation of sections is not enforced. Light years away from the enforcement around the food sections.
Why is organic wine certification and its labeling, treated so casually - compared to food labeling?
I have heard vehement protestations for most of the last year from any number of vintners who say, "Why bother to get certified? I know my vineyards are farmed without organic-designation-banned pesticides."
Sommeliers get cozy with their wine sales reps - who seem to have a very blurred distinction as well between organic versus sustainable - and want to be all buddy buddy with their suppliers. That's only natural - until, you know, we really can't tell if the wineries are being honest. Are they perhaps blending in a few nonorganic purchased grapes into their supposedly estate, supposedly organically farmed wines? We'll never know - and no one will ever show up to make them accountable.
I hear two other Big Reasons why self-reportedly-organic wineries can't be bothered to get certified: cost and paperwork. You would think the paperwork was an onerous as a tax return. It's true it could be simplified, but get an intern to handle it if you need to. Plenty of fools think the winery business is glamorous. There are lots of out of work people who could help.
The bigger reason mentioned is the cost. The cost, according to the Lake County CCOF certifier, works out to about $10 an acre, since government rebates pay for most of the certifying fees. The average 3-ton yielding vineyard would produce 225 cases of wine (2,664 bottles). That would work out to a per bottle cost of certification of less than 4 cents, if I have done the math correctly.
You and I, my friend, need to change this industry, which some how doesn't think it has to play by the regular rules of the road.
It's time to start asking some questions.