Delving Into the Term Organic: Is a Wine Label Conclusive?

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GrapevineReaders of this column are becoming more aware, and therefore more focused, on diet and on the health aspects of the foods and wines we consume.

The government has stepped in to help us identify the ingredients, the nutritional components of those foods and whether the foods were produced organically.

Government regulations continue to fine-tune the definitions of terms allowed to be used on labels. Given these precise and unyielding definitions and regulations, primarily from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an unintentional conundrum exists for producers. The most confusing and bewildering example of these government labeling requirements involves the term organic.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve explored the various terms used to describe wines made naturally. But what is organic? In its purest sense, organic products cause no damage to the environment, farm workers or consumers.

Trying to define this more finitely is difficult. We all want a clear understanding that if we purchase a product with an organic designation, this designation is consistently applied across all products, regardless of whether the product is meat or fish, raw fruits and vegetables, processed foods or bottled wines. Government regulations provide the assurance that specific standards have been followed in the production, handling, processing, labeling and marketing of all organically produced products. 

Here is the dilemma faced by wine purchasers. The USDA and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms have issued standards for the use of the term organic. If a producer complies with these standards, which must be certified by the government for each producer, the wine label may state it is organic, and consumers can be confident that the wine has been produced without chemical additives.

That’s easy, right? If you want to purchase organic wines, just look at the wine label. If it doesn’t state organic, then it’s not.

As with all government regulations that attempt to help us, there is a rub. What about wine produced organically yet doesn’t meet the narrow, precise definitions of the USDA? What about organic producers who choose not to follow or can’t afford the lengthy, intense process of receiving an organic certification? What about wines produced organically outside the United States but don’t conform to the USDA requirements? Are these wines not organic?

For example, if a producer administers no chemical fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides in the vineyard, then uses no chemicals during the winemaking processing, isn’t the end product organic? Not necessarily. If the winemaker adds sulfites (in natural form, not chemically derived) to the wine as a stabilizer and preservative, then by definition, the wine is not organic.

Another example: Many European artisanal winemakers farm their land and produce their wines in the pre-Industrial Age method of their forefathers, resulting in truly organic wines. However, if they don’t comply with USDA regulations and do not receive an organic certification (which by definition may be difficult to achieve), they cannot label their wines organic.

For informational purposes, the government has established three categories by which wines may be designated as organic. If the definitions are met, the applicable term may be printed on a wine label. Unfortunately, while thwarting unscrupulous producers from improperly using organic terms, the regulations also discourage certain organic-conscious producers. The certification costs can be in the tens of thousands of dollars, the paperwork can be overwhelming for small producers and the approval process can take years.

Look for these designations on wine labels: “100% Organic” (comprised of all organic ingredients – grapes and processing – with no added sulfites); “Organic” (at least 95 percent organic ingredients with no added sulfites); “Made with Organic Grapes” (grapes must be organic; the wine may contain a limited amount of chemically added sulfites.)

Beyond these regulated definitions, you now know there are many organic wines incognito on wine shop shelves. I encourage you to seek them out.

Next week I’ll take you on the road to a California winery I visited recently. We’ll delve into the dilemma the winemaker faces in attempting to produce and sell wines aligned with nature’s intrinsic order.

Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and program director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at or on Twitter @sharingwine.

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